Home Trending ‘Her pain should be our pain’: the woman tackling Delhi’s rape crisis

‘Her pain should be our pain’: the woman tackling Delhi’s rape crisis

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Swati Maliwal has a long list of enemies. But in a city where a rape is reported every four hours, she says: Somebody has to raise their voice

The fact my car has arrived at the road, it would already be known, Swati Maliwal says as her Delhi government vehicle coasts along GB Road, a strip of hardware and machinery shops at street level, and dark-windowed brothels above.

The pimps have their people watching, calling, she says, motioning at the tea stalls and hawkers lining the street. Nobody appears to pay the car any notice in Delhis afternoon traffic, but in the past year Maliwal has had to learn to see enemies everywhere.

As the youngest ever commissioner for women, in one of the most dangerous cities for women in the world, she has made a long list of them.

At first I was shocked, the 32-year-old says of being asked to become chair of Delhis commission for women (DCW) in mid-2015. I thought this post didnt really have any powers.

Government watchdogs including for minorities, lower castes and backward classes abound in Indias state and national bureaucracies, but many are considered toothless. Delhis womens commission in particular is derided as a parking lot for politicians.

Then Maliwal, a former activist, actually read the decades-old legislation that governs the womens watchdog. I was shocked again, she says.

Though the powers had never been used, the commission could do more than just publicise cases or recommend changes: it could order government departments to turn over information, and summon anyone it chose, even Delhis most senior police officials, for civil examination. And if that information or those people arent provided, we have the power to issue arrest warrants, Maliwal says.

In the 18 months since that discovery, Maliwal has refashioned the DCW into a crusading organisation, taking on the cases of about 12,000 of the women who line the faded halls outside her office each day, and pushing occasionally forcing police and government departments to give a true picture of womens safety in the capital.

One of the first things she sought was the conviction rate in alleged crimes against women in Delhi. For six months the police refused to give us this information, she says.

We issued a notice, and they told us it would cause a law and order problem if they gave us the data regarding crimes against women. We did not back down and we summoned the police commissioner. After which the data came.

The statistics showed that more than 31,000 crimes against women had been registered with the police in the two years to 2014. Of those, just 146 less than half of one percent had resulted in convictions.

Swati
Swati Maliwal, the youngest ever womens commissioner in Delhi, has taken on 12,000 cases since starting her role in 2015. Photograph: Ahmer Khan for the Guardian

Another probe into the citys forensics labs revealed a backlog of 7,500 DNA samples, out of which 1,500 had probably putrefied, pending for so many years that they had expired, Maliwal explains.

If there are no convictions happening in the capital, no wonder the [perpetrators] dont feel scared, she says. Theres a message that, whatever you do, youll somehow be able to get away it.

Maliwal dismisses the idea that Indian women and tourists in the country face a unique danger. In any nation, there is this gender bias that exists. There are crimes against women in all countries. But the amount of crime happening in Delhi against women is very shocking, very disturbing.

Delhi police records released in February showed a small drop in reported rapes and molestations last year, and 10% fall in offences against women overall. Yet nearly five years since the rape and murder of a Delhi woman, Jyoti Singh, on a bus incensed the country, statistics suggest little has changed for women.

The conviction rate for sexual assault has plummeted. And despite the introduction of fast-track courts for rape trials, self-defence classes for women, gender sensitisation programmes for police, and tougher sentences for offenders, a rape is still reported every four hours in the city, and a molestation every two hours.

The last weeks of 2016 were particularly shocking, with an 11-month-old girl raped and then dumped in bushes in west Delhi in September; a four-year-old raped and left to die beside railway lines in the citys north one month later; and the following day, a three-year-old sexually assaulted and strangled nearly to death.

Maliwal met the families in all three cases, which she insists on doing for most victims. This 11-month-old girl was wrapped in a blanket from top to bottom, she says.

The mother kept telling me, I want to show you her face. But I kept refusing. I felt that if I saw her face, her eyes will haunt me for ever. For the first time, I was scared. I was scared to look in her eyes.

She has lost count of how many women and girls in hospital beds she has sat across from in the past 18 months. Probably hundreds, she says. It inspires a lot of anger, a lot of grief. It numbs you, but the grief remains. I think its what keeps me going on. Her pain should be our pain.

Last July she kept vigil by a 14-year-old who had been raped and forced to drink acid. She used Twitter to broadcast the girls last moments, and months later, to demonstrate how easily acid could still be purchased in the city.

Swati Jai Hind (@SwatiJaiHind)

She died just now. Delhi again failed her Nirbhaya. She suffered so much pain. N her perpetrators were roaming free! https://t.co/wImFxjcPyz

July 24, 2016

Swati Jai Hind (@SwatiJaiHind)

Shocking failure of law and order in Delhi. Acid being sold openly. DCW team approached 31 shops in 2 days, easily bought acid from 23. pic.twitter.com/8FKZ0KJ4tD

November 3, 2016

Whatever inner fire these encounters fuel is carefully channelled. A trained engineer, she is obsessed with process, and evenly illustrates the citys problems in professorial paragraphs and precise statistics.

Born into a middle-class Delhi family, Maliwal studied economics and dreamed of working abroad in a nice multinational firm. But a stint volunteering in an underprivileged school after graduating made me really question my dreams and my outlook on life, she says.

She found herself drawn into the constellation of Delhi-based activists such as Santosh Koli and Arvind Kejriwal, now the Delhi chief minister, who were using Indias fledgling right to information laws to expose the corruption that blights most Indians interaction with the state.

Over the next eight years she shed her old life like a skin, quitting her job, roaming the country, resolving to work for the masses.

I lived in the slums, I lived in villages, I really saw what India is all about and I learned how to question fearlessly, she says.

Her past has proved good training for the often bruising politics of the south Asian megalopolis. Two days before Maliwal met the Guardian, she had been granted bail on charges of improperly recruiting staff to the commission, a case lodged by the woman she replaced, an appointee of a previous government. Anti-corruption officers have raided her office over the charges, which she shrugs off as frivolous and politically motivated.

Her own appointment to the post in 2015 was initially rejected, as part of an ongoing, bitter power struggle between her patron and mentor Kejriwal, and the national government led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, who together share stormy custody of the Delhi government. The womens commission has frequently been caught in the crossfire, its staff forced to work without pay for two months last year when a Modi appointee to the board suspended their salaries.

Her latest drive, to shut down the brothels of GB Road ridden with children forced into sex work and women trafficked from across south Asia might be the biggest challenge of her five-year term.

We are trying to investigate who owns the brothels. The Delhi police, the municipal authorities, the water board, the electricity department: they all feign ignorance. They say they dont know who the owners are.

She is currently pushing authorities to demolish the hidden rooms she discovered attached to a number of the brothels, which she says are used to confine trafficked women when police or other authorities come knocking.

It has led to a lot of attacks on us, she says. I feel that there is absolutely this organised trafficking racket that is promoting these attacks. Weve also issued over 3,500 notices to the Delhi police in one year, so there is that attack.

And all of the government departments that we regularly issue notices, some of their officers also hold a grudge against the commission. Then there are the people who have wronged women

Though the list of opponents is piling up, and legal cases are still pending, Maliwal says she feels secure in her post. This is the change Delhi wants. We are having six rapes a day. Somebody has to raise their voice, she says.

I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to lose either. I have no baggage. Ive been an activist for 10 years, I married an activist, we dont own any property, and have hardly thousands of rupees in our bank account. We both live by the day.

Thats the life Ive chosen for myself, she says. You can only take on people in a country like ours if you are absolutely clean. Otherwise theyll hound you and they will kill you theyll ensure your hidden things come out of the cupboard.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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