Rape cases, when they come out, become breaking news, making for dramatic headlines. People take to the streets, chanting anti-government slogans, clamoring for capital punishment, and demanding justice for the victims.
As necessary as reporting and public pressure are, rapes need to be dealt with sensitivity for a horde of vital reasons. But that’s not how we are responding to it these days. Our impulsive, sensationalism- or emotion-driven approach to a crime even as heinous as a rape is, more often than not, counterproductive.
Lily Thapa of the National Human Rights Commission, the constitutional human rights watchdog, says taking to the streets should be the last recourse. Public pressure is needed only when justice has been denied. Protests early on, before the victim has sought legal help, will lead to victim manipulation, give the perpetrator a chance to flee, and create a hostile environment for victim-blaming and shaming. “Rape cases need to be confidential and dealt with care for the safety and mental wellbeing of the victims, as well as to ensure they get justice,” she says.
Social media has given us all an open platform to expose sexual offenders. There is no denying that public support can help victims deal with the trauma. But, after the initial furor, there are plenty of downsides. There will be a flood of unwarranted advice and opinions. When a woman complains, many try to figure out just what she must have done to incite the man. Victims are judged and harassed. When someone is already emotionally wrecked, the negativity can be even more unsettling. Moreover, sometimes, the accused might not be guilty. But the tag of a sexual offender is hard to shake off.
“Nepal needs a proper mechanism to deal with rape cases. We are coordinating with different organizations and government authorities to discuss how that can be done,” says Thapa. “We must begin by creating a safe environment where the victim feels protected and confident enough to share what has happened.” For that, we need at least one forensic lab in each of the seven provinces for proper evidence collection. A fast-track system has to be established along with provisions for private hearing. It’s also equally important to establish more safe spaces as most perpetrators are men within women’s close circles—fathers, relatives, teachers, and friends. When women complain against these men, they often have nowhere to go.
The problem is also that we have always dealt with isolated cases. While doing that, we focus all our energies in lobbying for harsher punishment. But rape victims need additional support like counselling and legal aid. Pratikshya Dahal, advocate, says our society has to be proactive rather than reactive. It’s important to reform our laws but it’s equally important to take steps to educate people about consent and their rights. The crucial conversations we are having on social media don’t reach a large part of our population. Add to that our tendency to forgive men for all infractions because they are men, and the situation couldn’t be bleaker.
“There is no culture of social ostracization. Sexual abusers and perpetrators are often easily welcomed back into the society,” says Dahal. Sexual offenses keep happening because people believe they will get away with it, with a slap on their wrists at the most. Harsher punishments won’t deter crime when connections or money can easily get you a free pass. In most cases of sexual abuse and rape, there is an exploitation of power. Doctors harassing their patients, headmasters raping their wards, fathers and uncles groping small children—control and manipulation lie at the core of these acts.
Sabitra Dhakal, human rights activist, says many things prevent victims from speaking up. Our social mechanisms aren’t in their favor. It will be hard to prevent rapes and sexual crimes until and unless the nation can create an environment where voices aren’t silenced and fair proceedings are guaranteed. Dhakal laments that our nation only responds after reports of rape are made public and there are protests. Working on long-term solutions hasn’t, so far, been on the government’s agenda. What we need are a hotline to report rapes and a dedicated bureau to look into sexual offenses, so that victims aren’t caught up in the rigmarole of bureaucracy, says Dhakal.
“Public pressure can shine light on the matter. It can’t bring the needed policy level changes. You need continuous advocacy on multiple levels for that,” adds Nischala Arjal, human rights lawyer and assistant professor at Kathmandu School of Law. It’s also important to simplify the mechanisms already in place, she says while agreeing with Dhakal that often victims don’t report crimes because of red tape hassles. Establishing trust and a sense of security can go a long way in making victims feel like they will get justice, should they choose to tell their stories. For that, sensitivity and efficient handling of cases are of paramount importance.
While social media advocacy and street protests are imperative, activists and advocates say those avenues often lead to re-victimization or fuel violence. The accused or their families might be provoked to retaliate and that can cause additional problems for the victims as well as their loved ones, says Arjal. As a lawyer, she feels victims must first seek legal help, to minimize chances of evidence tampering, public sentencing, and smear campaigns. However, the fact that victims choose to share their stories through online platforms instead of going to the police to file a report speaks volumes of the general mistrust and fear of the system.
We have failed victims of violence, abuse, and rape as we haven’t been able to create and implement survivor-centric laws, despite frequent incidents. Public protests draw attention to the issue but the momentum isn’t maintained through continuous advocacy and policy-level reforms. So every time a victim shares a story, we begin from square one, which in our case is flocking to the streets.
Geeta Neupane of The Women’s Foundation Nepal says rape laws and how we deal with rape cases should be at the forefront at every national level discussion. All human rights organizations should lobby for them together and do so round the year. “The occasional outcry won’t accomplish much if that’s all that we do. It will fizzle out as fast as it started,” she says.