The Jessica Lall murder case has brought into sharp focus the glaring inadequacies of our criminal system. As the rest of the world watches in helpless silence and impotent anger, the offender escapes through many of the loopholes in the criminal justice system. Does law empower woman to get justice? She can fight in the courtroom and still be a loser. Had the laws succeeded, there would have been no child marriage, female feticide or female infanticide, no dowry deaths and no rapes. Perhaps India may have more laws than any other country to empower women, but the way the female species is treated right from the time she is born-nay, even before being born to the last stages of life, speaks volumes for the stark fact that laws are more observed in their breach than in their observance.

We know well enough that one of the main reasons for the declining sex ratio is the well-entrenched prejudice against the girl child, goading the parents to go in for a selective abortion. And the parents, the doctors and radiologists running the clinics-flout with impunity the Pre­conception and Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act (PCPNDT). When both the parents-man and woman-do not want a child of the other sex to be born to them, what can the law do? Where the social conscience fails, can the law be a deterrent? When the woman (female species) is herself against the girl child (female species), the law is as good as no law.

But law can empower women, if only they are prepared to exercise their prerogative. There has been the solitary case of the Satara-based Varsha Deshpande of the Yuvak Kranti Dal that conducted a series of sting operations on radiologists and doctors practicing sex selection techniques. According to this brave woman investigator, the unique strength of the PCPNDT is that instead of vesting powers with the police, the law has given the citizens the right to act. This lone ranger has become a bate noire to the sex determination clinics and their patronisers in Kolhapur and Satara and even Navi Mumbai. Her raids have covered clinics most of them illegalin Satara, Jalgaon, Solapur, Beed, Ahmadnagar, Sangli, Aurangabad, Raigad and Navi Mumbai. That she had to face hostile crowds at some places shows the great risk such crusaders have to face in society.

Laws, to be effective, must precede awareness generation that every girl born must get the same rights that a boy gets. The law, to be effective, must be preceded by the inculcation of the fact that the roles of the girl and the boy are complementary. Mere enactment of law cannot change human behaviour. Fear of punishment makes people take the devious means to get the act, which is illegal but socially ‘acceptable’, accomplished.

We know about the fate of the Rajasthani sathin who was gang raped for exposing child marriage in a certain village in Rajasthan. All the accused in the gang rape case were acquitted for want of evidence. Will anyone dare to bell the cat? The recent verdict of the Supreme Court that compulsory registration of marriages is a must, will, one must hope, help a great deal in curbing child marriages.

We have found that despite law, conviction rates in rape cases and dowry deaths are negligible. Tine reasons are simple. Says a social activist Ms. Padma Ramachandran, ‘The factor which helps criminals in India is the fact that down the line, from prevention to delivery to justice, we have many examples to show that members of all agencies involved (namely, the police, the public prosecutors, the courts and their staff) are vulnerable to political influence and temptation. Money and power are behind many of the unresolved cases which have got inordinately delayed, thereby denying justice.”

In order to empower women legally, we brought into beingto cut down delay in delivery of justice-the family courts almost 20 years ago. The Committee on Empowerment of Women recommended to the Centre in 2003, that it take immediate steps for setting up at least one family court in each district of the country so that women do not have to travel long distances to reach these courts. The 12th Report of the Committee, which was placed in Parliament in May 2003, noted with concern that even after 17 years of the enactment of the Family Courts Act, only 84 family courts had been set up in 17 States and one Union Territory.

Very few rape victims get justice and still fewer among the offenders get convicted. All the same, the courts have, from time to time, sought to provide greater relief in the administration of justice. At a workshop held in Bangalore, Karnataka, on ‘Creating Awareness among Women about the Women-friendly Laws’ some time in 2004, Mr. Justice S. Rajendra Babu called for radical changes in the Evidence Act dealing with the trial of rape cases to provide a congenial environment for the rape victim to depose in the case. Mr. Justice Babu said recording the statement of the victim should be minimized. The victim should not be made to undergo the ordeal of replying to questions during the cross-examination by the defence lawyer in front of persons against whom the rape charge had been leveled. He said the present system of recording the statement of the victim thrice-by the police immediately after the incident by the doctor at the time of undergoing medical test, and by the court at the time of trial-should be done away with, and the statement of the victim immediately after the incident should be taken as final.

Some of the judges of the apex court have called upon courts to deal with cases of rape with greater sensitivity. Describing the condition of a rape victim, a former Supreme Court Chief Justice Mr. Justice A.S. Anand says, “A murderer destroys the physical body of his victim. But a rapist degrades the very soul of the helpless woman.”

Does the present rape law provide justice to the victim? An emphatic ‘No’ is the answer from women’s organizations and activists. It is a reality that the stigma attached to the rape victim stops her from reporting the crime or makes her delay in reporting the crime. The victim needs the critical support from society and the community and NGOs. Thousands of rape cases are being reported the police is filing every year but only a small percentage in courts. Thus, it is the enforcement and implementation of the law, which is critical. One of the major obstacles to justice in a rape case is the poor quality of police investigations. The reason for this must be attributed to gender bias, corruption and the general inefficiency of the police.

Despite constitutional safeguards, women are still treated as second-class citizens. In an attempt to reduce discriminatory provisions in the existing Hindu inheritance law, the Government introduced a bill in the Rajya Sabha in December 2004. The bill allows girls equal entitlement to ancestral property as a member of the undivided family-a provision earlier available only to the males. At present, only four States-Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra give daughters, including married daughters, an equal share in the father’s ancestral property.

Not that there is a dearth of laws protecting women or empowering them, but the tragic truth is that the laws are rendered ineffective in society that fails to accord women equal status. Laws, however effective they could be, provide a poor defence against a society that still looks down upon women as second-class citizens. Will the society ever change its mind set against girls and women? In such a future scenario, there will be no need for any law. Woman’s greatest enemy remains the society she lives in, and this includes the mother-in-law who was once a daughter-in-law and the woman who colludes with her husband in getting rid of female baby before she is born.