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Art that intervenes: An art contest to campaign for a radical shift in fighting sexual violence

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Eye and Hands, a digital painting by NIFT-Delhi student Bhaswati Konwar was among the 25 nominees at the Art for Freedom contestEye and Hands, a digital painting by NIFT-Delhi student Bhaswati Konwar was among the 25 nominees at the Art for Freedom contestEye and Hands, a digital painting by NIFT-Delhi student Bhaswati Konwar was among the 25 nominees at the Art for Freedom contest

A school girl is floating in the air against a giant eye in the sky pierced from the top by a set of hands reaching out to help. The digital painting representing these striking images by a young artist reflects the lack of will of society and lethargic crime fighting by the system against the mounting cases of sexual violence against women in India.

The painting is among the more than 100 entries to Art for Freedom, an online national art contest to help change the way society treats survivors of rape. In many ways, the artwork also represents the crying need to modernise investigation and evidence collection by police, the absence of which is often cited as the major reason for the country’s abysmal record of rape conviction.

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“Today, we live in a modern society where everything is advanced, and we need everything new and high-tech to support our life,” says Bhaswati Konwar, a third-year leather design student of National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Delhi, who created the digital work that was one of the 25 nominees for the Art for Freedom prize.

Organised by American consultancy firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell Government Affairs and Ogilvy India in partnership with UN Women India, UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign, NIFT Delhi and Symbiosis Institute of Business Management (SIBM), Pune, the art contest is also aimed at emphasising the need for collecting DNA evidence to secure 100% conviction rate in rape cases.

“A majority of the acquittals in rape cases are because of lack of evidence. Since rape is by its very nature a private crime, evidence, more so DNA evidence, becomes extremely important for proof,” says senior Supreme Court advocate Pinky Anand. “In 2016, a study found that 83% of men (accused in rape cases) are acquitted in Delhi,” she adds. According to a National Crime Record Bureau report for 2019 released last year, a woman is raped every 16 minutes in India.

Use of DNA evidence in rape cases has been a slow process in the country. “While there’s been an improvement in testing volumes over the years, the pace of DNA forensics adoption remains slow,” says Tim Schellberg, founder and president of Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs, which has been consulted by several countries on legislation and policies to establish or expand criminal offender DNA databases. “The reasons range from low awareness to lack of training for police personnel and medical examiners on collection and preservation of samples. Testing infrastructure is still inadequate considering the size of India’s population and sheer number of violent crimes every day,” he adds.

India is moving towards creating a National DNA Bank to modernise crime fighting, but a legislation mooted in 2017 is still pending. The DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill 2019 has been referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee following fears of misuse over caste and religion. “DNA profiling has become a very important evidence in the detection of crimes like rape and murder. The government of India has introduced a Bill in Parliament for enacting the DNA Act. This will streamline the entire process of DNA analysis,” says JM Vyas, vice-chancellor, National Forensic Sciences University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

“Some big cases like Nirbhaya have been credited with great forensic work. However, such examples are far and wide. We have seen only a handful of high-profile cases making good use of DNA evidence and that too in big cities where police are better trained and equipped,” explains Schellberg.

The Art for Freedom campaign is part of the #DNAFightsRape–Save the Evidence citizen awareness initiative launched on November 25, 2019, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in partnership with Delhi Police, AIIMS and UN Women India. “The aim has been to educate people on their role in saving crucial DNA evidence in sexual offence and rape cases to strengthen India’s criminal justice system,” says Ameeta Vasudeva, national head PR and influence, Ogilvy India, who created the #DNAFightsRape–Save the Evidence and Art for Freedom campaigns.

The world of art is stepping up to spread the message. Changing the mindset of society to stop blaming and shaming rape survivors and instead helping them fight for justice has been driven home in the Art for Freedom contest. “We as a society in general and men in particular need to shift their stance on the mindset,” says artist Hanif Kureshi. “Creativity is a powerful tool to change that narrative,” adds Kureshi, a jury member of the contest that concluded on April 15.

The youth are responding to the call for change. “When she is seen kissing her boyfriend/When she’s just enjoying ice cream on a hot day/When she’s fixing her sari as the wind blows/Leave her alone… But when the monsters have their way with her/When she’s being beaten and bruised all over/When they ignore her screams and pleas and yelling out ‘NO!’/Don’t leave her alone” reads Alone, a poem by SIBM, Pune student Prerna Ramesh that took the third prize at the competition.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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