‘The term victim entitles a person to certain legal rights’

Victimologist Beulah Shekhar on how media representation can affect crime reporting rates and more

‘Sexual violence should be portrayed as the offender’s problem rather than just as an issue to be tackled by the survivor.’ Photo courtesy: Beulah Shekhar

Being sensitive to victims — whether it’s their treatment during police procedures or their portrayal in the media — could have a positive impact on society at large believes Dr Beulah Shekhar, professor and head of department in the department of criminology and criminal justice at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University (MSU), Tirunelveli.

In an interview with NewsTracker, Professor Shekhar, who is also the coordinator for the University Grants Commission-sponsored programmes for victimology and victim assistance and human rights education, explains how the media’s representation of sexual assault victims can affect crime reporting rates and why it is necessary to spread awareness about victims’ rights in a climate rife with the shaming and blaming of those who have suffered sexual violence. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

We hear a lot about victims’ rights, but what exactly do they entail?

The World Society of Victimology was instrumental in preparing the UN Declaration on Basic Principles of Justice for victims of crime and abuse of power in 1985. It has two parts, one for victims of crime and the other for victims of abuse of power. This document stresses that the criminal justice system has to provide four things to victims: access to justice and fair treatment, compensation (from the state), restitution (from the offender) and assistance (material, psychological, social, financial, legal, medical)

Without focusing on these four areas, the victim still remains what has rightly been called “the Cinderella of the criminal justice system”.

IT IS SUPPORT FROM VICTIMOLOGISTS, VICTIM SERVICE PROVIDERS AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM THAT MOVES A VICTIM TOWARDS BECOMING A SURVIVOR

Victims need to be treated with compassion and dignity, be informed of their rights and of support services available of them, and should have access to the mechanisms of justice. Measures must be taken to minimise inconvenience for victims, protect their privacy, and ensure their safety.

There’s evidence to show that many victims don’t come forward to report a crime — especially those of a sexual nature — because they are afraid of how law enforcement will treat them…

There are two documents that supplement the 1985 UN declaration, namely Handbook on Justice to Victims and the other is the Guide For Policy Makers.

These documents clearly stipulate the role of frontline professionals in dealing with victims. These include the police, lawyers, doctors, media and others who come in touch with the victim in the immediate aftermath of the crime and resultant victimisation. Training for the police is crucial to the treatment of the victim. A victim of crime has to transact with the police in the immediate aftermath of the crime. The victim’s first interaction with the police is crucial to how she copes and recovers. Research also consistently shows that many victims are reluctant to seek assistance from the police because they believe they will not be helped.

Tamil Nadu was the first Indian state to include victimology as one of the subjects for police in-service training. Subsequently other states followed suit.

It is widely understood that the way the media portrays sexual violence affects how the public perceives it and responds to it. Showing victims in a negative light could impact the willingness of people to come forward if they have suffered a sexual assault…

Sexual violence should be portrayed as the offender’s problem rather than just as an issue to be tackled by the survivor. In a recently concluded symposium at MSU, it strongly emerged that the government should shift focus from the protection of vulnerable victims to preventing the offending behavior. The slogan “Don’t teach your daughters to be careful, teach your sons not to rape” holds good in this context.

WHEN WE CONDUCT TRAINING PROGRAMMES FOR MEDIA PERSONNEL, THEY ARE SENSITISED TO NOT USE TERMS THAT INSINUATE THAT THE VICTIM WAS IN SOME WAY RESPONSIBLE

Victim blaming and saying that s/he precipitated the crime in some way are things to be avoided. The media has a huge role to play in portrayal of these crimes. When we conduct training programmes for media personnel, they are sensitised to not use terms that insinuate that the victim was in some way responsible for the victimisation.

There is a call to refer to people affected by sexual violence as ‘survivors’, but there is also a school of thought that thinks it is time to reclaim the word ‘victim’ because being a ‘survivor’ minimises the impact of trauma. Your views?

I would definitely advocate for the use of the word victim. This gives the affected person certain legal rights.

After so many years of lobbying in 2008, Section 2 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (w), finally defined “victim” as a person who has suffered any loss or injury caused by reason of the act or omission for which the accused person has been charged. The term “victim” also includes his or her guardian or legal heir; this definition is in line with the UN Declaration.

Having said this, it is support from victimologists, victim service providers and the criminal justice system (CJS) that moves a victim towards becoming a survivor. These agencies assist victims along the road to recovery by addressing their needs and facilitating their right to access to justice. So, recognising victimhood is crucial to recovery.

In this context, the police-public ratio in India is far below the UN standard, and is among the the lowest in the world. Furthermore, there are only 19 judges per million people, though this figure is increasing. These numbers show that public servants alone are not able to deal adequately with crimes, let alone meet the needs of victims.

MEDIA COVERAGE HAS AN IMPACT NOT ON THE OCCURRENCE, BUT ON THE REPORTING OF CRIME. AFTER THE NIRBHAYA CASE THERE WAS A SPATE OF CRIMES BEING REPORTED

Given this situation NGOs play a significant, often central, role in India in trying to represent the human face of the criminal justice system and make the process victim-friendly. India has one of the largest numbers of active non-government, not-for-profit organisations in the world. A recent study commissioned by the government put the number of such entities at 3.3 million, one NGO for fewer than 400 Indians, though this is likely to be an underestimation as many do not register.

NGOs play a large role in creating awareness of the victim’s needs and how they might be addressed through victim-friendly legislation. NGOs have been and still are focal to changes in the interpretation of the Constitution to recognise and provide for victims. An old saying goes, “God cannot be everywhere so he made mothers”. Similarly, “the government cannot be everywhere, hence the need for NGOs in India”. More often than not, in India, it is the NGO that helps the victim become a survivor.

What have you observed about how media reportage affects the survivor? Also, does it have an impact on the rate of occurrence?

Media coverage has an impact not on the occurrence, but on the reporting of crime. After the Nirbhaya case there was a spate of crimes being reported, which was erroneously interpreted as an increase in rapes. It was actually a good sign as it showed increasing faith in the justice system.

The victim holds the key and is the gate keeper of the criminal justice system (CJS). However, the treatment meted out to victims is deplorable and has turned them away from the system. If not for the victim the criminal justice system in all its glory will cease to be functional. It is the FIR that sets the CJS in motion. Even now, though, large numbers of crimes go unreported for various reasons, especially sexual crimes (99 per cent according to one estimate). The dark figures of crime are not captured in the National Crime Records Bureau or in the crime statistics of the country.

In the context of #MeToo, can victimology play a role?

This is a crucial time where victimologists and victim service providers can step up and emphasise the need for comprehensive victim legislation. India still remains one of the few countries in the subcontinent with no victim legislation. A lack of political will could be the only reason as a draft bill was submitted for consideration as early as 1998.

In the context of #MeToo, victims should be aware of their rights as per the UN Declaration 1985. These include the right to attend and participate in criminal justice proceedings, the right to apply for compensation or restitution from the offender, the right to protection from intimidation and harassment, and the right to a speedy trial.

India is a signatory to this declaration and therefore should ensure access to justice and fair treatment, compensation, restitution and assistance to victims.

Victims can use this checklist to ensure adequate protection.

Women’s police stations, victim counselling, rape crisis centres, good media practices…What will it take to combat the trauma the survivor faces in reporting sexual violence?

The Handbook on Justice for Victims calls for implementing victim service programmes and for developing victim-sensitive policies, procedures and protocols for criminal justice agencies and others who come into contact with victims. These may include police, prosecutors, legal and other victim advocates, judges, to those to whom victims reach out in their immediate circle — to their family, friends and neighbours — and to various informal, indigenous support structures.

Many countries have noted that special categories of victims may require particular attention, owing to the problems they face in coping with the victimisation and/or their limited access to justice. Women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, sexual assault victims, domestic violence victims, victims of hate crimes, refugees as victims and victims of large-scale crimes: for all these categories special measures may be necessary to ensure adequate and/or equal treatment.

Therefore all-women police stations and the sexual assault victim assistance fund, which Tamil Nadu was among the first states to adopt, are in line with the declaration to address the special needs of victims.

Manonmaniam Sundaranar University periodically trains police , judges and media personnel and NGOs on the rights of the victims and the need to offer victim services — those activities which are applied in response to victimisations with the intention of relieving suffering and facilitating recovery. The initiative of the Delhi Government to introduce one-stop centres to provide victim assistance under one roof (Saket Court) should be extended to all districts in the country.

Victim assistance is a neglected part of the criminal justice system…

In my research, I’ve found that if we fail to provide victim assistance we are creating a potential offender

When there is no victim assistance, there would be no reporting, no reconciliation and no healing — resulting in internalising of anger and frustration leading to lack of coping skills which results in crime or offending behaviour. In fact, I presented a paper titled ‘Crime as a cause of crime’ at the Stockholm Criminology Symposium in 2012.

The balance is tilted in favour of the accused in most common law countries, thus rendering the criminal justice system insensitive to the needs of victims. Making the criminal justice system more victim-friendly system would be the road ahead to preventing victims of crime from turning into offenders. Hence, victim assistance can also be viewed as a great crime prevention strategy. The first step would be to have a victim policy and enforceable rights for crime victims in India. Good victim assistance is crime prevention!

This is one in a series of articles that NewsTracker published from 25 November to 10 December as part of the #16Days activism, aligned with the UN’s International Day for Ending Violence Against Women. This piece appeared on Day 13.