When women come to her complaining of sexual abuse, advocate J Sandhya is not wracked by any self-doubt. The moral microscope that people are keen to peer through to measure the ratio of blame on either side is not meant for her. She knows the men are at fault, invariably.
Sandhya's only predicament is legal. "Certain things that are morally objectionable need not be legally so," she said. Ironing this out is her job. Take for instance a woman who has been lured into a sexual relationship promising a job. She had been late to complain because she had hoped till the last that the promised job would somehow materialise.
"But this is not an argument that one can make in the court. We need to provide a legally sturdy alibi for the delay," Sandhya said. This is not done by concocting lies. She works only with facts; masks some, polishes others. "I like to call myself a social activist first and then a lawyer," she said, seated in her surprisingly cool and silent single-room office placed far below the ground level of a busy street near the Vanchiyoor court in the capital.
Sandhya, who is also a former Child Rights Commission member, wants to debunk the myth that sexual abuse is all about "pouncing on the victim" the way cinema villains used to once upon a time. "Over 95 per cent of sexual assault cases do not involve violence. The accused merely exploits the vulnerability of the victim. It might seem consensual on the surface, but deep within there is a shocking power disparity," she said.
New generation rape
It is the helplessness of modern women caught in wrong relationships, and the wanton and whimsical acts of men, that Sandhya attempts to unravel. "I have been in this profession for quite long and I can understand vulnerability the moment I come across it," she said. "I don't begin from disbelief, as people tend to normally, but from belief. I believe what these women say, and I continue to have this trust even after all these years," she added.
Last year a 25-year-old IT professional had sought her help. Her relationship with a popular TV actor had fallen apart. She was distraught, on the verge of suicide. Out of the blue, her lover had told her that he was not interested in marriage. Though unfortunate, this did not look like a case that would stand in a court of law. This was between two seemingly independent free individuals.
Sandhya talked to the victim for hours, walked her through the entire spectrum of her relationship, from the rosy period to the dark days. "This was done not to convince myself of the girl's pain but to pick incidents, events, and people that could make our case stronger," Sandhya said. She concluded that the victim was lured into sex by the promise of marriage. Sandhya insisted this was rape.
"The law is but vague on this point. There are Supreme Court verdicts that say that adult women should have entered into relationships fully aware of the consequences. There were also judgments that had unequivocally said this was rape. So we knew that if we could produce adequate evidence, justice was at hand," Sandhya said. In this case, the police too had found that the man had cheated and had put him behind bars.
Sandhya does not want the society to be deceived by the independent and moneyed status of a victim. The victim in the case illustrated above was educated and earning but in reality was highly vulnerable. A fragile family atmosphere was the weak spot that the man had used to take advantage of her.
Her other clients have other vulnerability points. There are for instance cases where the victim had suffered abandonment for long and therefore had clung on to someone who comes across as protective, even if the guy is married and has children. "After a brief fling, these women are dumped and then it is made out to be a casual, consensual relationship," Sandhya said.
Dilemma of a policeman's wife
There are also women who were desperately seeking justice – say in a property dispute or in a case involving custody rights – or were urgently in need of a job that they had found hope in men of authority and connections. One of the cases she now handles involves a senior police officer.
Dealing with the police can be tricky for her. Her husband, Biju Lal K N, is a police official in the state cyber crime wing. "When policemen are involved, there can be a kind of confusion because my husband works in the police. He doesn't interfere but I do get worried for him," she said. Close friends even make fun of the combination. How can human rights and the police go together, they ask.
Kerala's MeToo moment
Sexual abuse complaints are now piling more than ever before on Sandhya' overcrowded table. She attributes this to the intense discussions on female rights triggered by the assault on a leading female actor in 2016. "So much about rights was talked about after the incident that women in the state seem to have been inspired. The boldness of the actor also helped," Sandhya said.
According to her, women could not have chosen a more appropriate moment to fight back. "After the Nirbhaya incident in 2012, and the amendments to the IPC in 2013, the law is stronger, and is weighed in favour of the victims," she said.
It was not so when she began. It was during her stint as project associate with Sakhi Women's Centre in the late 1990s, right after she secured her MBA, that she first encountered women's issues. It was the time when the plight of Nalini Netto and P Usha had hogged the headlines. "Then, I had felt that there were not many lawyers who could look at things from a women's point of view," Sandhya said. She promptly enrolled for the evening course in the Law College.
After she secured a degree, she was encouraged by the Human Rights Law Network, a national network of social activists and lawyers, to open a unit in Thiruvananthapuram. She also functioned as junior lawyer in the public prosecutor's office. "That was the time when fast track courts came into being and since the public prosecutor had so much on his hands juniors like me got the opportunity to conduct even rape trials," she said.
Before Nirbhaya and POCSO
This gave her an insight into the unspeakable horrors a victim who had opted for the legal route had to suffer. "There was no POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) then, and even an eight-year-old victim was treated like a 30-year-old. The victims were made to read out aloud in the court the FIR prepared so callously, and without even a drop of sensitivity, by the police. Children were shown no mercy," Sandhya said.
She had also found humiliating the manner in which statements under Section 164 were recorded. "The victim, even if she were a child, was asked to stand on the witness box and give her statement in full public view," she said. After she took over as one of the members of the Child Rights Commission, she successfully lobbied to change the system.
Now, the 164 statement is taken in complete privacy, inside the magistrate's chamber.