It was with a bit of fanfare that the Indian government-owned General Insurance Company (GIC) announced its Rajrajeshwari Women Welfare Insurance Scheme on 17 March. This was an insurance plan that allowed women to insure themselves against various misfortunes like accidental falls, gynaecological surgeries, snake bites, divorce expenses, and rape (at an annual premium of INR 15 against ”rape disability”, victims would be able to claim amounts ranging from INR 12,000-25,000/USD 280-580).
If Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee meant the scheme to be his government’s gift to the women of India when he launched it, he was probably taken aback by the outrage it caused among women’s groups. The insurance scheme exposed the “callousness and insensitivity of current attitudes within the present right-wing, Bharatiya Janata Party political leadership to the issue of rape,” said Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association. “In a country where rape and sexual attacks on women are increasing, the Prime Minister inaugurates a policy which equates rape with other marketable insurance polices.”
The Rajrajeshwari Scheme comes in the backdrop of the declaration by Home Minister L.K. Advani a few months ago that his government favoured tougher laws, including capital punishment as a deterrent to rapists. Activists have been arguing that increasing the penalty for rape is less important than actually securing convictions—nearly impossible under the dated Criminal Procedure Code, which favours the perpetrator rather than the victim. “The conviction rate in rape cases which get to the trial stage is a mere 10 percent and most opt to give up half-way—so what is the point in increasing the severity of punishment,” says Ranjana Kumari of the Mahila Dakshata Samiti.
Among the many holes in the code is one which permits a defence lawyer to dig up a victim’s past history and use it to weaken her case. “Even a sex worker should have the right to say no,” says Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, a statutary body which, over the years, has forwarded to various central governments several unimplemented recommendations for amending anti rape laws.
“A government which has been crying hoarse for capital punishment for rapes seems to have done a complete turn-around by asking women to pay in anticipation of being raped,” said Shabnam Hashmi of the human-rights group. SAHMAT. She said the scheme opened up the possibility of increased child abuse for the sake of monetary gain. Besides, she pointed out, victims would still have to undergo the humiliating ordeal of proving rape to insurance authorities. G1C has made it public that victims can opt to prove rape through their own doctors, but there is still no way the police can be kept out of an incident that is criminal rather than civil in nature.
A GIC spokesman clarified that the idea behind the scheme is to take care of financial contingencies rather than trivialise the crime. That may be so, but the government seems to have got the message. It has removed ‘rape’ from the wording of the scheme although the crime remains both culpable and insurable.