Are we ready for gender-neutral sexual offence charges ?

By Vrinda Saxena

The Supreme Court on Friday, 2nd February, dismissed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), asking for sexual offences to be made gender-neutral. The PIL, filed by SC advocate Rishi Malhotra, questioned the constitutional validity of sections like 354 (assault or criminal force with intent to outrage her modesty), 354A (sexual harassment), 354B (assault or use of criminal force to woman with intent to disrobe), 354C (voyeurism) and 375 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), on grounds of violating the provisions of Article 14 (Right to Equality) and 15 (Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sex) of the Constitution of India.

Plea to make sexual offence charge gender-neutral

In his plea, Malhotra argued that the words “any man” mentioned in such sections of the IPC must be replaced by “any person”. The bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Mishra, and comprising of Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice AM Khanwilkarand, stated that it is not the judiciary’s prerogative to amend the IPC, but that responsibility lies with the parliament; and the judiciary cannot direct the parliament. They added, “These legislations are victim-oriented and the parliament has acknowledged a woman as the victim.” The petition was termed as an “imaginary petition” by the bench, which refused to recognise women as perpetrators of sexual crimes. The Chief Justice responded to the claim of violation of Constitutional provisions by saying that Article 15 was specifically intended to protect women and children.

Are we really ready for equality in its true sense?

71 years of Independence and India is still grappling with the question of providing complete justice to one gender. So is it too much to be asking for justice for all?

India occupies a frontline position in the ranking of countries with maximum sexual offences, where issues like stalking and eve-teasing are now too common and hence ‘minor’ to be discussed in the same space as rape and the likes. Women, no doubt, bear a massive chunk of the brunt. Still, however, a large number of cases go unreported; the societal stigma associated acts as a major deterrent, along with unhelpful authorities.

The paradox here is that while on one hand efforts are being made to eliminate these limitations to create a safer environment when the issue of safety for others in the same environment is raised we shy away from it. Amidst the glaring concern on women’s safety, we fail to recognise that sexual offences are also committed against men. These incidents go unreported for about the same reasons as the ones against women. Can we still not, then, take a lesson from one, to prevent the same problem for the other?

Further, when the law of the land recognises only one gender as the victim, the natural implication indicates the rest as perpetrators. There is no scope for the actual victims to claim relief if they do not belong to the ‘victim’ recognised by the law. So how correct is it to place the transgenders in this purview?

Have we truly regressed?

The existent law criminalising homosexuality under Section 377 of the IPC has already pushed India back a few steps and now with the dismissal of making sexual offences gender neutral, another attempt at progress has been thwarted.

60 years is what it took to actively address sexual crimes against women. Another 60 years is what it might take before sexual offences can be looked at from other perspectives perhaps, or perhaps not, it depends on us.

Featured image source: Pixabay