Even as the infamous 14th April 2017 Phaknung gang-rape of two minors allegedly by a group of seven young men was still under investigation and protest, two minors were raped by two men, aged 21 and 25, on April 29 near Kakching Khunou.
While the community was still coming to grips with the two horrific incidents, a 21 year old private school teacher, Miss Nengneikim Haokip alias Shila, was allegedly brutally gang-raped, tortured and murdered at Sugnu on the night of May 4 (the perpetrators have not been brought to justice till now), and in a case where the husband had claimed responsibility, the dead body of an 18 year old Lunglailu Rongmei was found with her throat slit at her bedroom on May 5 at Chingmeirong in Imphal.
What is noteworthy in the Phaknung gang-rape case is the claim and counterclaim of the ages of the six accused, excluding the accomplice. Soon after the arrest of the accused it was reported that one of them is a minor. However, in a startling turn of events it was claimed later on that only one of them is an adult and the rest are juveniles.
As per recent news reports, there have been strong arguments and counter-arguments between the defence lawyers and the prosecution over the ages of the offenders, with the former claiming five of them are juveniles and the latter pressing for ossification (bone tissue test) citing discrepancies in birth dates on educational certificates, Aadhar cards etc. Several civil society organisations have also been pressing for ossification tests with five of the accused who claim to be minors, however only one has been ordered to undergo the test.
The argument over the age of the perpetrators is significant as age can determine the severity of punishments handed down to the guilty. It is true that fake birth certificates or some other proof-of-age documents could be obtained to manipulate the justice system.
Although an ossification test by itself is not necessarily conclusive proof of age, it could be helpful given that it can estimate the age within a range of one or two years especially for a person below 20 years of age. For example, if the test result for the culprits in Phaknung gang-rape incident gives the age estimate as between 18 and 20, it means they are of adult age, and if it gives as between 16 and 18, it means they can still be tried in Court as adults as per the toughened Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act, 2015 that allows children aged 16 to 18 years to be tried as adults in cases of heinous crimes like rape or murder.
This change in the juvenile justice law came about in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case in which one of the perpetrators, who was a few months away from turning 18 at the time, walked away after serving three years in a reform home.
While it is encouraging to see many civil society organisations up in arms about the recent spate of sexual assault and standing up for justice, it is disturbing that some people seem to think rape and sexual assault is acceptable if the victims do not behave in a certain way.
In a shattering and re-traumatising reaction to the Phaknung gang-rape incident, some local Meira Paibis (women torch-bearers in Manipur, supposedly defenders of women’s rights and dignity) in Khurai area made a joint press release questioning the behaviour of the rape survivors and blaming them instead of the rapists—as if anyone would ever want to be raped. This reaction disgusts me. It should be noted that rape or any other sexual assault can and does happen anytime and anywhere and to anyone. It does not discriminate.
Victim-blaming and sparing the perpetrator, the cornerstones of rape culture, is not the right way; it only encourages the culprits and rape culture. It is un-Manipuri and not a solution. There is no excuse for rape or sexual assault. Many cases of sexual assault and abuse go unreported due to fear of social stigma, re-traumatisation, disbelief, shame, blame and due to mistrust of the system and also verbal attacks from defence lawyers on the victim.
The Manipur government needs to ensure that adequate preventative measures like public awareness and community education programmes to ensure safety of children and women are taken up and that stringent and timely action against perpetrators and rehabilitation of victims are taken up as per The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012.
Relevant existing laws like the POCSO Act, 2012 and the JJ ACT, 2015 must be effectively applied in dealing with sexual assault cases. And if there is a system failure in law enforcement and justice systems, the government must bring about reform.
I am sure the new chief minister of Manipur, N Biren Singh, who also holds the Home portfolio and is praised by the public for handing the murder case of his own son (now behind bars) to the Central Bureau of Investigation, is truly serious about the problem of rape and violence against women, but the question is what has been done to curb the problem.
The new government led by BJP is positively engaged and focused on much-needed activities, but it should not overlook the safety, security and well-being of children and women in the community.
As a society, our attitude towards sexual assault must shift from victim-blaming. As Laura Hartnell rightly states in her article, ‘It’s never her fault: End the victim-blaming’ in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “If, as a society, we continue to blame victims and refuse to acknowledge the truth of sexual assault—that it is solely the fault of the perpetrator—we cannot expect rates of sexual violence to improve”.
(The writer is an Australia-based social worker and he can be reached at email@example.com)
Source: The Sangai Express