Rape Victims Marry Violators: Is this Welfare?
While the country is debating on the quantum of punishment for rapists in India, the eastern state of Orissa is witnessing marriages between rape survivors and their rapists.
These marriages are not only facilitated by jail authorities - where the alleged rapists are lodged - and the NGOs supporting the victims, but are also propagated as an exemplary gesture, a kind of atonement for the crime committed. As a result, many accused have actually used this route as a ploy to either escape punishment completely or get away with a lesser sentence.
In Baripada town, 150 kilometers from Bhubaneswar, a rape accused, who was an under trial prisoner, married the woman he had attacked in the presence of senior politicians, police and government officials. After nearly two months, the accused was released by an order passed by Chief Judicial Magistrate of the Court allowing him to go back to his village and lead a life with his 'wife.'
In another incident in Bhubaneswar the alleged rapist, a government official, was persuaded to marry his victim by an NGO supporting the victim. A special wedding function was organized by the NGO in the prison, to which the media was also invited.
A prison official in the western district of Jharsuguda termed such a marriage held in his jail as part of a policy of "reform and rehabilitation". The marriage between the accused and his victim was arranged in the Jharsuguda sub-jail. The alleged rapist's advocate approached the victim with a marriage proposal and with help from legal counselors. The two agreed to marry. "What I did was wrong," a lawyer quoted the accused as saying after the wedding. "Now I am happy to get a chance to make amends." The victim was also quoted as saying that she was ready to forgive her tormentor. "At the time of rape I hated him. I wanted to tear him to pieces. But I have a different feeling now. I have forgiven him because he has chosen me as his wife," she is believed to have said. Following the marriage, a bail petition has been moved to free the accused.
In another incident, an alleged rapist was granted interim bail by a local court to facilitate his marriage with the victim in Sundergarh district. The accused and his friend had allegedly gang raped the girl while she was returning to her village after attending a tribal festival. The court, after receiving consent from the girl and the accused, granted bail to the accused for the couple to get married.
The growing practice of such unions has evoked mixed reactions. While some justify such marriages on the basis of "rehabilitating the victim", others are strongly critical of it and label it as "nothing short of another offence."
"Do the people who advocate such marriages ever follow-up to see if the woman is happy in her marriage? The possibility of further violence and desertion in a marriage based on the foundations of a violent act is always there," says Bisakha Bhanja of the National Alliance for Women (NAWO), Orissa. She maintains that a marriage proposal by a rapist or a deserter is usually done to win a reprieve.
Others add that such a practice also sends signals to potential offenders that they can easily get away with their crime. Some have pointed out that those NGOs, jail authorities and sections of the judiciary which have fostered such marriages in the name of social reform are actually going against a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court had observed that if a person commits rape, neither a proposal of marriage nor any other settlement between the rapist and victim, can condone him of the crime.
However, in a recent case in Cuttack district, the Orissa High Court asked a rape accused to either languish in jail without bail or marry the victim. The accused had sexually abused the girl on the pretext of marrying her and later deserted her after she became pregnant. The victim subsequently lodged a complaint against him. "Permanent bail would be allowed only if the accused tied the knot with the victim within this two-month period and allow his name to be the baby's father," the Bench specified.
Lawyers and jurists argue that such cases need to be judged on the basis of the circumstances and context of each case. "If both the complainant and the accused are willing to compromise and get married, the Court has no alternative but to quash the proceedings," says Orissa-based lawyer Bibhu Tripathy. He argues that there cannot be a straitjacket approach in such cases. But he also cautions that marriage between the accused and the victim is possible only when both parties agree and the situation is conducive to such a relationship. "What if the accused is already married and what if the victim is unwilling?" he asks.
"The practice of rapists marrying their victims may be condoned in some instances. But it should also be remembered that several such cases are based on the false promise of marriage and result in desertion," says Sneha Mishra, Orissa State Coordinator of the "We Can" Campaign to end violence against women. She also observes that many of these cases involve couples who are already in a relationship and the man usually deserts the women or refuses to marry her upon discovering that she is pregnant. This, she believes, is also a serious offence.
Rituparna Mohanty of Orissa-based NGO, 'Sanjeevani', which had facilitated four such alliances recently, claims that getting the victim married to the accused "restores the lost dignity of the women." She explains: "While some of the cases are actually based on false promise of marriage, others are actual cases of rape. But in both kinds of cases, it's the women - especially unwed mothers - who are stigmatized and ostracized by their communities. At least through a marriage they can hope to lead socially acceptable lives."
Mohanty admits that where there are inherent problems in such alliances, "we try and involve the families from both sides and also counsel the victim and accused intensely."
In response to this line of argument Bhanja retorts, "Why is marriage being advocated as the only answer in such cases? Can't the victims be rehabilitated with more dignity and economic independence?"
But there are not many who would agree with this rational response. Given the prevalent patriarchal attitudes, survivors of rape continue to be denied their rights and sense of self respect, even as justice delivery remains an arduously slow and difficult process.
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