India dramatically tightens laws on sexual assault, trafficking after gang rape

By Simon Denyer

NEW DELHI — India dramatically tightened its laws on sexual assault and trafficking Sunday, with a far-reaching package of measures rushed through to satisfy public opinion in the wake of a horrific gang rape of a young woman in the capital in December.

Women’s groups complained that the government had not gone far enough, particularly because it neither outlawed marital rape nor dealt with the legal impunity enjoyed by members of the country’s armed forces. But other activists said the new measures, which imposed much stricter penalties for a range of crimes, marked one of the most significant changes to laws protecting India’s women.

With Parliament in recess and the government looking to move quickly, the changes were pushed through in an ordinance that was approved by the cabinet on Friday and signed into law by the president on Sunday. The measures go into effect immediately, but Parliament must ratify them within six months.

“This shows the intention of the government to take the issue very seriously,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, an activist who has spent the past decade fighting trafficking and child labor. “We now have to ensure this gets translated into law [by Parliament] and the law gets enforced.”

A Panel's Recommendations

A high-level committee led by retired Chief Justice J.S. Verma was set up in the wake of nationwide protests over the rape of the 23-year-old woman in New Delhi and her subsequent death. The panel, which looked at ways to protect India’s women, went further than many people had expected by recommending sweeping changes to Indian law and governance. The government has accepted many of the committee’s recommendations.

In particular, India’s rape law has been changed to allow for tough penalties for all types of sexual assault. In the past, rape was defined as penetration only, and anything short of that fell under the ambit of criminal assault on a woman with “intent to outrage her modesty,” an offense that carried a light penalty. That provision was almost never enforced, leaving women vulnerable to, for example, groping on public transportation by men who knew they were unlikely to be prosecuted.

Separate offenses with strict punishments have been introduced for stalking, voyeurism, stripping a woman or carrying out an acid attack. For the first time, trafficking has been outlawed in India, with stiff penalties for the trafficker and for those employing people who have been trafficked.

In effect, that means anyone employing children as maids, a sizable proportion of the Indian population, could be jailed for at least five years, and the vast network of “placement agents,” who bring children from poor villages to work in India’s towns and cities, could be put away for at least 14 years. A police officer or other public servant found to have been involved in trafficking could be jailed for life.

The dramatic changes, if implemented, could serve as a deterrent to India’s huge child labor industry.

The ordinance went beyond Verma’s recommendations in just one area, with the government bowing to popular pressure to allow the death penalty in cases in which a rape leaves a woman in a persistent vegetative state.

‘An act of bad faith’

Women’s groups had urged President Pranab Mukherjee not to sign the ordinance into law, saying the government had sidestepped many of the most important recommendations of the committee. They have pledged to continue their protests this week.

“The ordinance is a complete betrayal of the faith that people had put in the government — that they will carry forward the demand from the street, the demand from the women’s movement and what was reflected in the Verma committee report,” activist and lawyer Vrinda Grover said at a news conference Saturday. “This is an act of bad faith. It is the most horrible form of politics this government could have played on us.”

The Verma committee had recommended that members of the armed forces who are accused of rape be tried under civilian law, instead of being protected by a special law that gives them virtual immunity from prosecution. The panel had also recommended that members of Parliament charged with rape and other serious crimes be forced to resign their posts and that marital rape be outlawed.

Those recommendations were ignored, although the government insisted that it is open to further discussions and possible amendments when the ordinance reaches Parliament, which is expected to approve the changes. The next step is a parliamentary committee, which will examine Verma’s recommendations in more detail.

“The reluctance to address the accountability for the police or for the army is a problem,” said Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. “Any state that wants to address this [violence against women] will have to deal with accountability.”

But Ribhu said there was still time to discuss those more politically sensitive issues in Parliament. For now, he said, the new provisions represented perhaps the most significant changes to India’s laws protecting women since the penal code was implemented by British colonial rulers in 1862.

A law to outlaw the payment of a dowry when women are married was introduced in 1961 and tightened in the 1980s, while a bill to outlaw domestic violence came into force in 2006.

“Parliamentary debate can wait, public opinion can wait, but women need to be protected now,” Ribhu said. “Every single hour, a woman is getting raped in India. Eighteen children get raped in a single day on average in India, and every single day, hundreds of thousands of women are assaulted, groped, stalked and trafficked.”

Five men pleaded not guilty Saturday to charges of rape and murder in relation to the December gang rape. A specially convened fast-track court is expected to begin hearing evidence Tuesday, and the men could face the death penalty if convicted. A sixth suspect, who is 17, will be tried in a juvenile court and could face a maximum sentence of three years.


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