Sharanya Misra

Judgements like these possibly undermine the problematic thought processes our society harbours against girls and women and can set very dangerous precedents. Bottomline – a sexual offense cannot be ‘minor’!

In a shocking recent judgement, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court stated that groping a child’s breast could not amount to sexual assault under Section 7 of the POCSO act if there was no ‘skin-to-skin contact’. The judgement mentioned that since there was no detail “as to whether the top was removed or whether he inserted his hand inside top and pressed her breast”, the offence fell under Section 354 (assault of criminal force on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). That essentially meant reducing the act to a ‘minor offense’ deserving no more than a year of punishment.

I am no legal expert. I do not understand the nitty gritties of what a judge faces in a courtroom. But as a woman, and a human, I do know that touching a girl/woman’s breast, without consent, even if ‘just’ from the outside IS (from a humanitarian perspective) assault. More importantly though, what troubles me is the knowledge that a judgement like this can set a dangerous precedent in society. It can undermine the problematic undercurrent of thoughts running through the perpetrator’s mind, and the minds of many many others as well. It can fuel the idea that there is an ‘acceptable’ limit for such actions. Until one day the act is ghastly enough for the country to march out with candles. Must we wait for things to get to that point to consider an act worthy of a 3 year sentence?

What makes me shudder, is the plight of the victim. A 12 year old girl, for God’s sake! What must the young girl be going through? First to have faced a man forcefully touch her against her will, and then to have been told in public that it wasn’t sexual assault at all! Can one imagine what kind of a mark this could leave on her mind for life?

It makes me anxious to watch that a law, whose essence is clearly to protect children from these very kind of predators, can be interpreted to believe that conditions can be attached for deciding the gravity of the violation of a young girl’s body and mind. Perhaps a greater disappointment for many of us over this judgement has been that the judge was a woman. While landmark judgements for advancement of women’s rights have been passed by male judges, one naturally expects a woman to understand, from personal experience, what her gender goes through, both physically and mentally, when facing something like this.

The shock – how could something like this happen to me? The denial, the questions – did it really happen? Did I just imagine it? Did he really mean bad? Maybe it was a mistake? The realisation & finally the resignation – Yes, it happened and there was nothing I could do to stop someone from touching my own body because I have no power before a man. EVERY woman experiences these emotions atleast once in her life. I wonder how many of them could forego these feelings, the anger, the frustration, the helplessness and trauma, because they were touched from over their clothes instead of under?

I do not have an understanding of the legal jargon that must be decoded by judges to interpret our laws and deliver judgements. Hence I shall not comment on whether or not the judgement was right or if the crime was indeed technically outside the purview of the POCSO act. But as a conscientious citizen, a parent to a girl, and a woman myself, I do understand that our society needs judgements that can send out the message strongly. It is NOT OKAY to violate a woman, NOT OKAY to violate a young girl, no matter over the clothes or under. No matter with penetration of without. What matters is CONSENT. There cannot be conditions to categorise these wrongs into degrees of rights.

Patriarchy runs so deep in the crevices of our society that a girl/woman is not considered a human with independent rights, not even on her own body! And that’s where judgements in such cases can play such a key role. For, if the law begins to undermine their experiences too, how does one even begin to change the mindset around us?

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