It is more than six years since the brutal Nirbhaya/Jyoti rape incident occurred in a public transport in Delhi, causing extreme outrage amongst Indians at home and abroad. In January 2018, an eight month old baby, too became a statistic and would have probably remained so, if the young, dynamic, and above all humane chief of Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), Swati Maliwal, too was swallowed by silence as much as the rest of the country was.

The eyes of the baby haunted me, her painful cries from damaged  internal organs, reverberated throughout the hospital, when I paid her a visit, and the fact that this baby was left to die in a pool of blood, after being raped by her own 27 year old uncle, made me very angry. I walked at the very  prospect of her fighting a court battle for the next 16 years of her life, during which she would be questioned about her ordeal again and again.  I, therefore chose to internalize my anger and channelized it into getting her speedy justice instead.

Swati Maliwal

While the politicians and local media have sunk the country, in the throes of Hindu-Muslim debates and national jingoism, besides the scam of the day, Swati Maliwal, chose to scream in the deafening silence that followed the rape. On Jan 31, 2018, Swati launched an online and on ground movement called Rape Roko. She had also launched a quiet satyagraha, where she did not return to home from work until March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day. She slept in the office during work, where both the victims and volunteers/supporters needed her time and attention. She was not aware of what kind of impact this would have, but she wanted to do this to stay focussed on the task at hand and to demand three important things: 1) to ensure that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes on children are given the death sentence, 2) a fast track court is appointed to deal with these cases, and 3) the cases are disposed off within six months of the crime.

Thousands of student volunteers and general public across the country and Indians residing in USA and Canada too had joined the struggle. They not only recorded their protests and shared it on social media, but also signed the petition to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in Delhi, listing the three demands. 

The issue had however been deeply politicized in India, forgetting a fundamental norm that neither the perpetrator of the crime, nor the victim are identified politically. It was an issue which affected everybody, irrespective of their political or communal bearing. One of the tasks that NRI volunteers undertook was calling the 543 Members of Parliament (MP) to appeal to them to take up the issue in parliament, irrespective of party lines. Though most of the MPs, irrespective of their gender, were insensitive and unresponsive, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, MP from Jammu and Kashmir, actually expressed his support wholeheartedly. He even promised to raise the issue in Parliament, as he too was troubled by the rape of an eight year old girl in his home state. According to Rajendra Lodha, one of the NRI volunteers from Texas, USA:

I am particularly shocked that media coverage back home on the issue was so poor that nobody had even heard of the rape, until they saw our campaign here.

Rajendra Lodha

Prabhat Sharma, another NRI volunteer from California, was also disturbed by rising rape incidents. He felt that the figures could be brought down only by educating the masses, or by introducing stringent punishment.

Since education is a slow process, we have to press for a severe deterrent instead.

Prabhat Sharma

Prabhat had partial success with Dr Subramanium Swamy, MP from TamilNadu, who promised to look into the matter if details were sent to him. Responding to allegations that NRIs sometimes give a bad name to the country, Roopsi Narula, NRI volunteer from New Jersey says, “Bringing the issue of rapes in India to international spotlight, is not being ‘anti-national’, but is an attempt to wake up the Indian government to protect women and children, and punish the rapists”. 

How long is one expected to be a mute spectator, while women and children are stared at, molested and raped in Delhi, because there is not enough fear in the minds of the perpetrators, sure as they are that even if arrested, they can roam free on bail, live normal lives and in most cases never be convicted ?

Roopsi Narula

The situation in Delhi, which over the years has become the rape capital of the world, deteriorated because the entire machinery in place to protect women and children is in a state of near collapse, whether it is the police, judiciary or various government departments dealing with the matter. Crimes against women and children, between 2012 and 2014 alone stood at 31,446 with only 150 convictions. 

Rape incidents vs convictions in Delhi between 2012 and 2014

Delhi police is facing a severe shortage of staff, and demanded an additional force of 66,000 policemen in 2014, besides struggling to digitize itself for the last 10+ years, with no help from the centre whatsoever.

The Nirbhaya rape outrage had spooked the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, to release a sum of Rs 1000 crores, referred to as the Nirbhaya fund. This fund has multiplied since then, but not been utilized at all for its sole purpose of women and children empowerment and safety. The tokenism has since then been discarded completely by the present Nationalist Democratic Alliance (NDA) government which has in the last four years, failed to effectively put the funds to use. As a result, Delhi, now identified as the rape capital of the world, witnesses at least 6 rapes and 13 instances of molestation every single day.

The complexity of the problem, is often the reason stated for further lethargy, but I refuse stay quiet. I will summon every ounce of power vested in the Women’s commission, instituted under the Delhi Commission for Women act of 1994, to ensure that all the stakeholders in the women’s and children issues, come together to break down the problem into bits and pieces and take responsibility for addressing it.

Swati Maliwal

One of the first steps Swati took was to get a high court order to re-energise the special task force which was set up after the Nirbhaya episode. This task force was to meet twice a month to look into issues related to crimes against women and children. Until Jan 2018, this group had met only 11 times in three years, without any suggestions.

At the moment, Swati is fighting a lone battle, to take on the system, shift perspectives, challenge patriarchy, force the police to act, wake up the judiciary in an attempt to break silence around the issue. This besides cleaning up women’s shelters with the help of the state government, where rape, incest, and domestic violence victims are slowly being reduced to mental health cases, denied as they are of even the most basic care, living in extremely pathetic conditions, reduced to being society’s discards. 

She is not sparing the liquor mafia either by exposing liquor sales in local parks, frequented by women and children. For these efforts, one of her vocal female volunteers was paraded naked in a busy lane of Delhi, in broad daylight, under the very gaze of the police, with several shouts from the crowds that Swati will be next. She is also pointing fingers at sale of acids, which are freely available and so easily thrown on women victims, leaving them again disfigured and helpless, and fighting for justice. 

If this wasn’t enough to put her life at stake, she is also questioning the very existence of the widespread prostitution racket on the infamous GB Road in Delhi, a mere three kms from the parliament and just 10 metres from the nearest local police station. There are 5000 women, and about 500-600 children working there in dingy rooms, distributed as they are among as many as 90 brothels. Children under 15 years of age, end up servicing as many as 30 frustrated men a day. And yet nobody knows who owns this multi million business.

Swati Maliwal on hunger strike and demanding death penalty for rapist within 6 months

To shrug off their own responsibilities, local police has filed false cases against Swati. However, Swati’s efforts in the Rape Roko movement did not go to waste. She was on indefinite hunger to push for stricter laws for rape in India. Swanti ended her hunger strike after 10 days when Union Cabinet approved an ordinance on Apr 22, 2018. Lok Sabha passed a bill for death to child rape convicts in July 2018. According to this bill, 20 years of jail term which may go up to a lifetime in prison will be given to rapists who commit crime on minors under 12 years of age. Gangrape of a minor under 12 years of age will be punished with a lifetime imprisonment or death.

DCW was a toothless Tiger, where women politicians were shunted by the ruling party of the day. The last commissioner of DCW before Swati, Barkha Singh, who held the position for nine years, solved only one case in those nine years, never disturbing the police for statistics.

When I was appointed, I read the act, and was amazed at the powers at my disposal, I could summon the police commissioner and threaten to arrest him, who was delaying giving me rape figures, for fear of it causing public outrage. Since then, in one year alone, we have overseen 11,696 cases, attended to 316 lakh distress calls on the 181 helpline, conducted 7500 grass roots visit, attended 5500 court cases, counselled 1869 sexual assault victims and have made 55 recommendations for women safety to the government. We are the only women commission office in the entire country who operate on saturdays, and if required on sundays too. We are very much part of the system, but believe in shaking it up, stepping on a lot of male egos in the process. And if I am ever sent to jail for the effort, be sure that I will have a report ready on prison reforms, besides ensuring the welfare of the 600 odd women prisoners in Tihar jail.

Swati Maliwal

1 year report card of DCW after Swati Maliwal became chairperson in July 2015

Despite all her efforts in the last three years, rape numbers refuse to come down, and it is high time that citizens in India and abroad, help in strengthening her cause of putting a stronger system in place, before we as women, or someone close to us, become a rape/molestation statistic and are left fighting a lone battle for the next 10-15 years for justice.