Bengaluru: Assam has reported the highest rate of crimes against women among all states and union territories for the last three consecutive years for which official data are available. There has been a marked increase in three categories of crimes against women--domestic violence, kidnapping and molestation--from 2016 to 2019, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data.

The trend of increasing crimes against women in Assam is also noted in gender-based violence data collated in the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS) 2019-20, released in December 2020. Over 30% of women in Assam reported spousal violence in NFHS-5, up from 24.5% in NFHS-4 (2015-16), and 8% of young women reported sexual violence, up from 5.8% in NFHS-4.

Assam's rate of crimes against women is higher than the Indian average--in 2019, Assam's crime rate (per 100,000 female population) was nearly thrice the Indian average. Do the increased numbers suggest an increase in crime, or in reporting of crimes? Both, say activists from women's groups, who have released a Women's Manifesto 2021 putting forward several demands to political parties and candidates to include prevention and mitigation of crimes against women, among other gender-based demands, in their election promises in poll-bound Assam.

Assam police, however, attribute the increase in crimes to higher reporting due to increased empowerment of women in the state. Women in rural Assam report fewer crimes, due to fear and financial dependence on spouses, say the police. More rural than urban women, however, reported spousal violence in India's third-most rural state, per NFHS-5. Several women's rights activists we spoke to said these reasons for under-reporting in rural areas were true for women in urban Assam as well. They said the NCRB statistics are only the "tip of the iceberg" of crimes against women in Assam, and that some of the rise in violent crimes against women and girls could result from a backlash as women increasingly challenge patriarchal values in the state.

The manifesto issued by the North East Network (NEN), Purva Bharti Educational Trust/Women in Governance, Women's Leadership Training Centre and Xobdo notes that witch-hunting, sexual violence on women and girls, domestic violence, intimate partner abuse, acid attacks, trafficking, cyber­crimes and marriage of minor girls are on the rise in the state. Saying that women are unsafe in both private spaces including their homes and workplaces, and public spaces including public transport, roads and markets, the manifesto demands: the establishment of women's safety committees at the panchayat, district and state levels; extension of the reach of the 181 women's helpline to the remotest corners of all Assam districts; and effective implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Act, 2018 and Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, and of the revised state Victim Compensation Scheme.

"A state policy with a dedicated task force to tackle crimes against women is the urgent need of the hour," Anurita Hazarika, Assam state coordinator for NEN, which works in eight districts in Assam, told IndiaSpend.

Increasing domestic cruelty, kidnapping and molestation

Reported crimes against women have been increasing from 2005 to 2019 in Assam, data from the state's Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) show.

Reported cases of cruelty by husbands and/or his relatives, kidnapping and molestation have increased steadily between 2005 and 2019; the year 2019 saw the most reported cases of all three crimes. The largest increase has been for cases categorised as cruelty by husband and/ or his relatives under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code.

The increasing trend of violence against women seen in the CCTNS data has also been captured in the NFHS, India's largest household health survey, which periodically collects nationally representative data on health and gender-based violence. In the four years between NFHS-4 (2015-16) and NFHS-5 (2019-20), the proportion of wives who reported violence by husbands increased from 24.5% to 32% in Assam. The number of women aged between 18 and 29 years who reported sexual violence increased to 8%, up from 5.8% in NFHS-4. More rural women in Assam reported spousal violence (32.9%) than urban women (26.6%) in NFHS-5, and marginally more rural women (8.1%) reported sexual violence than urban (7.4%).

Crimes against women in Assam are growing at a faster rate than the national average, and crime rates are higher than the all-Indian average, NCRB data show. In 2019, Assam's crime rate (per 100,000 female population) was nearly thrice the national average. It was higher than Delhi's, which firmed up its reporting infrastructure after the 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape case.

Assam accounted for less than 3% of India's female population in Census 2011, but its share of crimes against women in 2019 was 7.4%, at its highest point since 2005. In contrast Delhi, which accounts for 1.5% of the female population, has seen its share in crimes against women decline steadily since 2015.

High rates in both rural and urban Assam

There are large intra-state variations in the rate of crime against women per 100,000 female population in Assam, according to NCRB data from 2019. Darrang district in north Assam has a crime rate of 338, nearly twice the state average of 177.8, while Karbi Anglong in central Assam has a crime rate of 35.

Seven districts--Jorhat, Sibsagar, Hailakandi, Dhubri, Barpeta, Bongaigaon and Hojai--have crime rates higher than the state average. In 2016, Kamrup district was divided into Kamrup East and Kamrup Metropolitan district; the latter also have higher than average reported crimes against women. However, NCRB reports do not yet reflect the split in the districts and therefore, they have been excluded from our district-wise analysis (see chart below). The districts reporting a high crime rate against women spread over the state, and are diverse in terms of the ethnicities and religious affiliations of their residents, according to Census 2011.

An increasing population can lead to rising crime rates, studies have shown. The NCRB 2019 data for Assam, however, do not indicate a corresponding increase or decrease between population size of districts and crime rates against women.

The Women's Manifesto 2021, pointing to evidence of women's social discrimination in Assamese society, "where support services are denied to them both in villages and cities", has demanded the establishment of women's safety committees at all levels from the panchayat to district and state levels.

Increased reporting

NCRB statistics reflect only those crimes that are reported to law enforcement agencies "and recorded through all stages of actions on the cases", says a statistics ministry report.

"Reporting has improved. Women are more aware. They do not tolerate violence anymore. They can write an FIR [First Information Report] and email it, if they cannot come to the police station. The police are required to register the case even if it is in an email," Rosie Kalita, superintendent of police (SP) in the Chief Minister's Special Vigilance Cell, Assam Police, told IndiaSpend.

Kalita said that between 2005-2013, local police were mandated to share a copy of their investigations with the Criminal Investigation Department of Assam police when a domestic violence case under Section 498(A) was reported and investigated. In 2010, Section 41(A) of the Code of Criminal Procedure that empowered the police to arrest a person under certain circumstances was amended. Following this, in case of domestic violence, if the suspect(s) presented themselves to the police, that was sufficient and the police couldn't arrest them based on a complaint. This effectively countered common allegations of misuse of dowry and domestic violence laws, Kalita said: "In a minority of cases, the laws are being misused by women, but mostly, the investigations prove that allegations of cruelty are true."

In rural Assam, however, there is considerable underreporting, Kalita said, as rural women are reluctant to come to the police station--they are afraid that they might be thrown out of their homes and are financially dependent on their husbands. Nearly 86% of the population of Assam was recorded as rural in Census 2011, making it India's third most rural state.

Only one in five crimes of domestic violence are reported to police in Chirang, a Bodoland Territorial Area District, said Laxmi Chetri, a development associate with Action for North East Trust (ANT) stationed in Chirang. Chetri has been leading a domestic violence intervention programme in this rural district. Of the nearly 500 cases of domestic violence brought to ANT's legal aid cell in the five years since the intervention was rolled out, fewer than 20% get reported to the police, Chetri told IndiaSpend. "What women want is for the violence to reduce, for their husbands to be counselled and for the marriages to be intact," Chetri said, "In instances when a woman does involve the police, they may file an FIR and a chargesheet, but women retract their statements after going to the court. The police know this, so often they end up calling the husband to the station, and counselling him, instead of filing an FIR. Only if there are grievous injuries are 498(A) cases filed."

Tribal communities like the Bodos, the largest tribal group in a state that is 12.5% tribal, are reluctant to involve the police because the Bodos do not recognise domestic violence or partner abuse as crime, Chetri said, adding that culturally, domestic violence is widely accepted in India, and not only among the Bodos. The Bodos also have a very strong traditional system of dispute resolution; therefore such crimes are often not reported and rarely are the courts involved. In most instances of domestic violence, the spouses are invited to a meeting with the aim of mediation and reconciliation. Financial compensation is paid if the victim has been injured, outside of the formal judicial system, she added.

For many women in rural Assam, access to formal courts is difficult and court procedures take long, said Chetri. Those women who do make complaints are pressured by their natal families, in-laws and also the community at large to retract, she added.

All the activists we spoke to said the reasons for under-reporting in rural areas that Kalita mentioned were true for urban women as well. In Assam, greater visibility of women in public spaces such as markets, as in most of India's northeastern regions, may give the impression that it is a better state for women, but in reality this is not the case, said Anurita Hazarika, state coordinator for North East Network, a women's rights organisation working in eight districts of Assam. "NCRB statistics are the tip of the iceberg," said Hazarika. "In reality, most crimes against women go unreported because of poor access to services, poor development indicators and the normalisation of crimes like domestic violence."

Highest rate of murder with rape or grangrape

The crime rate of rape per 100,000 female population has increased by 33% in Assam between 2005 and 2019, but at a lower rate than domestic violence (409%), molestation (309%) and kidnapping (267%), making the share of rape in all crimes against women decline since 2008.

The increase in rapes is not proof of an "... increase in real rape cases. Instead, these are cases of elopement where disapproving parents, especially on the girls' side, file false cases of rape and kidnapping against the boys. Once they return to their parents after getting married, the allegations are withdrawn. But in our systems, this still goes down as a rape case," said Kalita.

UNICEF estimated in a 2019 report that 33% of women in Assam got married before 18 years of age, the highest in the northeast and higher than the Indian average. Hazarika and Chetri emphasised that early marriages in Assam occur through elopement, rather than forced child marriage. The police are legally bound to register a kidnapping case for underage brides, raising kidnapping statistics across the state.

But cases of murder with rape/gangrape tell a different story. Assam has the highest reported rate of these crimes among large states (with a population of over 10 million). Maharashtra, with nearly four times the population of Assam, had 47 instances of rape or gangrape with murder in 2019, in contrast to 26 in Assam. With less than 3% of India's population, Assam accounted for nearly 10% of all these crimes in the country in 2019.

Since implementation of the Justice Verma Commission recommendations of 2013--for speedy trial and enhanced punishment for crimes of sexual violence against women--began, several types of crimes against women are now categorised as molestation in the CCTNS data, including cyberstalking, said Kalita. Therefore, the reported rise in molestation cases reflects both a real increase (because more types of crime against women can be included under this category), and an increase in reporting of such crimes to the police, activists say.

One Stop Crisis Centres (OSCs) have been working in all districts of Assam and the 181 helpline number for women is particularly effective, leading to better reporting of crimes against women, Nilanju Dutta and Rashmi Rekha Borah, researchers and activists at NEN, told IndiaSpend. This is not the case for states like Uttar Pradesh, which have high rates of violent crimes against women and children but poorly functioning OSCs.

Some of the rise in violent crimes against women and girls in Assam could be a result of a patriarchal backlash as women increasingly challenge patriarchal values, both Dutta and Borah said.

Police investigations and court cases take long

In 2019, among large states, Assam and Punjab had the highest pendency rates of cases where police investigation is incomplete, at 52.4% and 52.5%, respectively, NCRB data show. Two neighbouring north-eastern states, Arunachal Pradesh (62.1%) and Manipur (81.6%), also reported the highest pendency rates in India among smaller states.

The NCRB does not release state-disaggregated pendency rates by types of crime to enable pendency or charge-sheeting figures by type of crime for each state. In 2019, Assam had both the second lowest charge-sheeting rate among large states, at 43.9%, and the lowest conviction rate, at 6.7%. The Indian average is 67.2% for charge-sheeting and 50.4% for convictions.

At 91%, Assam had the sixth highest pendency rates in the courts, i.e. cases where trials are under way. Also, 39% of cases took more than three years to get resolved in Assam, in contrast to 24% for the rest of India.

The high rate of pendency in courts could be "...because judges get transferred too frequently, forensic evidence takes a long time to collate, and there are unfilled posts in the judiciary in Assam as elsewhere in India, lengthening the trial period", Baharun Saikia, the chief mediator at the Guwahati High Court and a lawyer specialising in crimes against women, told IndiaSpend. Since 2008, following Supreme Court orders to reduce pendency rates, Assam has transferred many civil and some criminal cases, such as those involving domestic violence, for mediation, said Saikia. This is aimed at faster resolution.

Trials typically take longer due to delays in forensic analysis, as sometimes basic chemicals are unavailable and the police have to send evidence outside the state for analysis, said Kalita. Also, Assam police and judiciary are overburdened like their counterparts everywhere in India--more than 30 million cases are pending across India, the majority in the lower courts. The result is that victims get discouraged by the lengthy legal processes and stop participating, Dutta and Borah said.

Increasing crimes against women coupled with low charge-sheeting and conviction figures, and a high pendency rate of investigations and court cases symbolise poor governance, womens' groups have pointed out in the Women Manifesto 2021. They have demanded the establishment of fast-track courts to enhance access to justice for Assam's women.

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