With sexual violence in India finally coming out of the shadows, the complex social and legal challenges of affecting change are becoming increasingly apparent. We recently had the opportunity to spend a day with Jonathan Derby, a consultant to CSJ India, and have an in depth discussion of the challenges and potential solutions. Jon’s efforts to create an incubator for change through addressing the legal and social issues demonstrate the potential impact that can result. We offer this interview as an insight to a horrific problem and hope our readers will share it to help the issue to become more transparent around the world.
Meg: Most of us, in other parts of the world, hear about sexual violence in India when some of the most horrific incidents occur but we don’t really have any context around how large an issue this is. Can you explain the problem and the scope?
Jon: Sexual violence is a significant problem in India. While the media highlights a few of the most horrific cases, sexual violence is extensive and deeply rooted in Indian society. Most sexual violence remains hidden. In 2007, a Ministry of Women and Child Development study, which surveyed 12,447 boys and girls across 13 states, revealed that 53.2% of children had experienced sexual abuse; 20.9% of children had suffered severe forms of sexual abuse, including rape. These percentages are staggering when you consider India has 1.2 billion people. At the same time, not many rapes are reported to police–only 24,923 rapes in 2012–so there’s a large gap between actual and police-reported sexual abuse.
While sexual violence impacts on socio-economic classes, the poor are especially vulnerable. Last week CSJ took a case of a mother who lived on the pavement with her young son and one year old daughter in a poor area of Delhi. They were staying in a night shelter where a man sexually abused her one-year old daughter. It turns out that the man had sexually abused other woman in the community too. This is the reality for the poor, especially women and children; they live in insecure and unstable conditions, which makes them extremely vulnerable to sexual violence.
Meg: How has Indian society responded to both the high profile issue this has become? Does the reaction vary by social class and age or are the lines blurred?
Jon: Like I mentioned, sexual violence is a significant problem in India that remains mostly hidden and unspoken about. While there has been dialogue about sexual violence for quite some time, mostly women’s rights groups were the one’s speaking out about the problem. In fact, I’ve met amazing Indian women who have spent their lives fighting for greater equality and security for women and girls.
But in December 2012 the dynamic changed when a 23-year old physiotherapy student was gangraped and murdered. Indians across social and economic backgrounds began talking about sexual abuse. In fact, sexual violence became part of the mainstream discussion across the world, and the epicenter for the heightened consciousness was Delhi. A year and a half has passed and the dialogue hasn’t stopped. Many times, a crisis would hit India that sparked outrage, but after time memories faded and life resumed as normal. But since December 2012, there’s been consistent attention on sexual violence in the media. New incidents, like the rape and hanging of two cousins in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh last week, continues to fuel the dialogue. This is a good thing. When more people speak about issues, it raises hidden problems to the surface, so they can be dealt with. For example, in 2013 police-reported rapes more than doubled in Delhi compared to 2012: a lot of this had to do with the increased attention of rape in Delhi. The number of rapes hadn’t increased, just more people had come forward and reported them to police.
Meg: A problem of this magnitude that is so ingrained culturally must seem at times almost impossible to solve. It involves changing attitudes in the court system, in the boardrooms, and in the bedrooms of India. Do you sense a cultural shift? What will it take to move the needle in the right direction?
Jon: Only time will tell whether there’s a cultural shift or not. When facing a problem so immense, I strongly believe each of us must find where we individually can make a difference. At CSJ, we seek to make a difference for each survivor of sexual violence we represent. More than anything, our clients need someone who will stay with them and fight for them during a confusing, dark time in their lives. We strive for our clients to see justice and know that what happened to them was wrong; to help them heal from the harm they’ve suffered and bring them to a better place in their lives.
Changing attitudes is a long hard battle that could take a generation. That’s why it’s so important to find hope in small ways we impact individual people; these glimmers of hope sustain us as we confront the immense challenge of changing attitudes. While there must be long-term strategies that focus on changing the culture of India’s justice systems, improving performance immediately requires government authorities to merely follow laws already in place. The law in India protecting women and children from rape and sexual abuse is strong. Unfortunately, though, many times the law is not implemented on the ground: at police stations, hospitals and in the courts. When CSJ lawyers and social workers advocate for our clients during criminal proceedings, we hold the system accountable, so to speak, so police, public prosecutors and judges are more likely to understand and implement laws that protect our clients and further justice.
Meg: Threat of prosecution is a form of punishment in our country considered a success/deterrent even if prosecution isn’t successful. It seems that with the exception of the most high profile cases that provoke the most outrage and come with the possibility of the death penalty, that so much of the daily sexual violence isn’t necessarily impacted by potential punishment. How do you see creating solutions without the threat of death that are equally successful in deterring sexual violence?
Jon: I believe strong justice systems are instrumental in protecting women and children. After the December 2012 gangrape, there were calls for chemical castration and the death penalty for rapists. In fact, Parliament amended the Indian Penal Code to include death penalty for rape in certain circumstances. Rather than making punishments harsher, the criminal justice system just needs to work better: give rightful convictions, deliver swift justice and treat victims with dignity and compassion. Basically, if the criminal justice system works the way it’s supposed to work, over time abusers will think twice before they aggressively harass women, more women will report sexual abuse, and society’s faith will grow in the system meant to protect them.
Meg: I’m always curious as to how people in the NGO world end up going in certain directions. How did you come to choose India as your home? And why this cause?
Jon: The funny thing is I didn’t choose India. I wanted to use my law degree to fight injustice and that journey led me to India. When I graduated from Pepperdine School of Law in 2004, I pursued an opportunity in Mumbai, India with International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that protects the poor from violence in the developing world. The Mumbai office focused on combatting sex trafficking and forced prostitution—which is of course an issue of sexual violence against women—but really the location and issue were secondary. I followed my passion.
First, I served as a legal fellow in the IJM-Mumbai office. Then in 2008 IJM asked me to lead the office as Field Office Director. After serving over three years in that capacity I left IJM and explored incubating an Indian organization focusing on injustice. In October 2011, I attended a legal conference on Women and Justice in Delhi, India. Several women’s rights activists spoke about the need for lawyers to represent rape survivors during criminal proceedings. They said the criminal justice system was insensitive to victims and conviction rates were low.
The discussion struck a chord with me because at IJM-Mumbai, we represented survivors of sex trafficking during criminal proceedings. I understood the impact a lawyer and social worker could have when representing survivors of sexual violence, beginning at the police station until judgment. I don’t remember exact numbers, but the conviction rate for cases we handled that came to judgment when I led the office was between 70-80%. In comparison, in Maharashtra, the state where Mumbai is capital, the conviction rate for serious crimes was single digits.
After the conference I discussed forming an organization with Indian lawyers and other contacts in Delhi. Everyone agreed it was a great need; even then some had labeled Delhi as the rape capital of India. In April 2012, I moved to Delhi to research and explore opportunities to incubate an organization that provides lawyers and social workers to rape survivors during criminal proceedings, and Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ) was incorporated in August 2012. Now we have a wonderful team of 6 Indian staff handling child sexual abuse cases.
Meg: What are your more concrete goals – i.e. in next 5 years – have trained “X” number of lawyers, or some other benchmark?
CSJ’s vision is that every woman and girl in India who comes forward about sexual violence has an advocate who defends her rights and has access to effective and compassionate criminal justice. In our first couple of years, our focus is to get really good at handling sexual violence cases. We have a small staff, so we want to concentrate our resources on a single issue (child sexual abuse) in a single court in Delhi. With this focus, not only can we represent more clients, but it also makes it easier to refine our casework model so we can replicate it throughout Delhi and eventually across India.
This year CSJ will take 30 cases, for a total of 60 cases our first two years. We have four main goals the team targets in each case: 1) rightful conviction; 2) swift justice; 3) clients secure rights and protections per law; and 4) clients are connected to services they need for healing. Right now, victims of sexual violence just are not securing these outcomes on a consistent basis in Delhi or across India. For example, a CSJ study revealed that in Delhi in 2012, there was a 20.5% conviction rate for rape cases and criminal proceedings took 28.7 months on average to complete. We strongly believe that when an advocate and social worker represent victims throughout criminal proceedings, there is a much greater probability these outcomes will be secured.
While we are developing ideas that will help us achieve our vision, right now we aren’t equipped to set concrete long-term goals. We are young and a lot of our long-term strategies will be shaped as we learn and grow. We do have a strategic advantage that will help shape our long-term goals: our team works within the justice system, so we understand how it works and what the most pressing problems are. We will develop programs that leverage this understanding and experience to make a greater impact on the justice system.
Meg: Often, when an endemic problem exists in a country, the West seems to perceive the issue in a black or white fashion and doesn’t understand the nuances and therefore, doesn’t know how to help. Other than financial aid for organizations like CSJ, is it possible for people in other parts of the world to make a difference and show solidarity with you?
Jon: Yes, it’s possible. In fact, I think it’s important for people in the West, who have skills and resources, to share generously and help those in need, wherever they live. The Internet and social media have made the world smaller and easier to stay informed about issues like sexual violence in India. People can learn about small organizations, like CSJ, that aren’t well known but do good work. They can make a difference by raising awareness about the organizations and their causes so more resources flow to work they do on the ground.
If we desire to truly understand the nuances of problems and the suffering of people, we need to go where they suffer, know the person and touch the pain. Vision trips to India are a way for people to “touch the pain” of our work, and use their skills to help CSJ, even if only a short time. For example, a group of lawyers and Pepperdine law students and faculty visited CSJ this year and trained Indian lawyers on oral and written advocacy.
There’s another very important point I should make: when we approach other cultures, very often we need to change our mindset. Instead of rushing in, thinking we have solutions, we must have a posture of humility: willing to listen and learn, and slow to judge. When we do, we find there’s much to learn from different cultural viewpoints; that’s especially the case with India’s rich culture. When we have this humility, it’s easier to work in solidarity and collaborate with other like-minded nationals to combat evils, like sexual violence, that are wrong regardless of culture.
Many thanks to Jon for sharing his story with us. We strongly encourage you to visit the CSJ website and watch a short, but powerful, video on the story of a girl named Archana.
More about Jonathan Derby:
Jonathan is an attorney licensed in California who has extensive experience in human rights at a grassroots level in India. After he earned his Juris Doctorate degree in 2004 from Pepperdine School of Law, he joined International Justice Mission (IJM) and served on the legal team in their Mumbai field office, which combats sex trafficking and forced prostitution. In 2008 he was promoted to IJM-Mumbai Field Office Director and led a team of 40 staff until April 2011. In April 2012 he moved to Delhi to incubate an new justice organization called Counsel to Secure Justice, which advocates for criminal and restorative justice for survivors of sexual violence. Pepperdine Law School appointed him as Nootbaar Global Justice Fellow while he conducted research, networked and prepared to launch CSJ, which began operations in April 2013. Now CSJ is just over a year old. It has a small team of 6 Indian staff in Delhi and represents over 30 cases of child sexual abuse.