On state and non-state/community-based approaches to GBV: Is punishment still a common denominator?

December 3, 2023

BY Jasmine George

As we approach the year 2030 (the Global Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development seek to end poverty and hunger, realise the human rights of all), we reflect on the various laws enacted in India with the aim of safeguarding and empowering girls and women. These legal measures — such as (increasing the age of marriage to 21 years) — have facilitated educational access, improved economic prospects, and paved the way for fulfilling their potential.

However, what these laws have, to some extent, fallen short of addressing is the issue of gender-based violence, whether it occurs within homes, on the streets, in universities, or in the workplace. Despite a surge in legislative efforts aimed at protecting girls and women over the past five years, these initiatives have not yielded the anticipated behavioral changes or reduction in violence against women. 

The state has adopted a protectionist approach like the “Beti Bachao and Beti Padhao”(which translates to “protect the girl child and teach her”) campaign when addressing gender based violence, an approach that is also reflected by the abundance of CCTVs, more women-run police stations, and the establishment of stricter laws to enhance women’s safety.

Even though we are unable to see any remarkable difference in crime rates against women, there is still a push for more punishments as a measurement to prevent crimes against women. But laws have failed women and communities and maybe it’s time we explore some non-punitive parts of a criminal law to see what can be useful for our communities. 

This is where community-led strategies find their place in collaborating with state and legal frameworks. Through our efforts at Hidden Pockets Collective, we witnessed how the community consistently favored approaches that exist outside of legal mechanisms. Hidden Pockets Collective trains young women and girls on their reproductive rights. When we organize listening sessions for women and girls in our communities in Karnataka, many of them openly acknowledge that they refrain from approaching the police to file complaints, even when they are aware of violence occurring in neighbouring households. Those sessions aim to assist women in forming supportive communities that offer both financial and emotional support during times of stress and violence. Many women would opt for this over going to a police station, as they fear losing financial support from their husbands.

Our community advocates for a nurturing approach, one that can be supported by the state and that places care at its core. At the same time, we see how communities do want an element of punitive methods as well because the criminal justice system and its ethos have been part of our narratives for a long time. However, there is a pronounced desire for care to be provided by community members who are committed to offering sustainable support. 

Punishment or harm-based punitive methods remain a common denominator in both approaches, but the manifestation differs between the state and community. Punishment is quick, tangible, and almost performative, where it seems like justice is being served and everyone gets to be part of this performance. French philosopher Foucault famously said Prison is not unique. It is positioned within the disciplined society, the society of generalized surveillance in which we live.” Presently, the state predominantly relies on punitive methods, involving the confinement of perpetrators in institutions without fostering community involvement. In contrast, community-based approaches place survivors at the core, emphasizing their healing and economic well-being, even when there is a desire for punishing perpetrators.

Punitive methods are still practised in policies aimed at addressing the sexual and reproductive health of young girls and women. The 283rd report from the Law Commission of India discouraged altering the existing age of consent, which stands at 18 years under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. Over the past five years, activists have raised concerns about prosecuting adolescents within state systems who engaged in consensual sexual activity. In the effort to protect girls, young boys are sent to juvenile homes. Instead of guiding them to make informed decisions and providing essential emotional support, the state isolates them and separates them from their families and friends. 

Adolescents require information and guidance. Even within juvenile homes, there are no individuals to provide guidance and help young people understand their rights and responsibilities.
But feminists are slowly moving towards alternative methods that are provided in the civil laws in some of the countries. For example, the Juvenile Justice Act 1986 posits community service as a form of punishment and allows juveniles to take ownership of the acts they commit. There are groups that are working with government systems to create some positive impact on people who are put away in institutional systems.