Can anything, least of all money, compensate for the trauma of sexual assault? It cannot. This is what a girl presently living in a halfway home in Delhi has said while turning down the compensation offered to her by the Haryana government. Monetary help is offered to rape survivors in order to cover, among other things, lost wages, loss of support, medical costs and mental health counselling. This is not meant to indemnify the survivors, but to assist them in their rehabilitation. But the problem arises when recompense is equated with the principle of justice; it is this problematic equation that the courageous lady seems to have questioned in this instance. For only justice can act as a salve for survivors of sexual assault; and justice is achieved with the commensurate punishment of the offender. But the pursuit of justice can be a long and arduous battle. In this particular case, even though rape was established after the stipulated medical examination of the woman and her alleged assaulters arrested, the latter were acquitted by the court for lack of evidence. The police, as is often the case, failed to build a tight case against the assailants, the botched investigation adding to the victim’s trauma and humiliation.
Such an outcome is hardly out of the ordinary in the Indian context. According to latest statistics, the rate of rape conviction is only one in four cases. Is there a case to suggest that the poor conviction rate mounts additional pressure on victims and their families to accept compensation to achieve a sense of closure? This is not implausible, given the stigma that is directed at women even though they are the ones who are wronged. The family of the girl in Delhi — she is originally from West Bengal — has refused to allow her back home, let alone agree to stand by her in her quest for justice. Moreover, the term, compensation, even though it is the language of law, needs to be examined. It contains within it an element of patronization that is suggestive of the idea that a transgression as grave as sexual violence can be set right by money. This line of thinking could actually encourage perpetrators to believe that they can pay their way out of crime. Justice, or for that matter, a sense of closure for the victim, must be understood to be independent of ‘compensation’. Each stakeholder of the judicial system — from the police to lawyers and, finally, the spirit of law — must be able to make this crucial distinction. The inclination to imagine redemption as recompense could then be challenged.