Enhanced sentences, faster trials, better implementation of existing laws and gender sensitization of lawmakers are among some of the recommendations made by a recently formed panel reviewing India’s sex-crime laws after the Dec. 16 gang rape of a 23-year-old paramedical student, who later died as a result of the attack.
The three-member commission, headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice J.S. Verma, was set up in late December during the wave of public protest and revulsion that rocked the country after the brutal crime. The commission was given a month to come up with recommendations and submitted its 657-page report on Wednesday. “We have submitted the report in 29 days,” Verma said during a televised news conference Wednesday afternoon. “The government, with its might and resources, should also act fast.”
As well as legal changes, the panel called for a review of patriarchal attitudes legitimizing violence and injustice against women and proposed a crackdown on the khap panchayats (informal, all-male village councils given to making sexist pronouncements, from demanding that women be banned from using mobile phones to suggesting that the way to tackle sexual harassment is to marry girls off early). The panel also suggested that the humiliating digital vaginal examinations made when victims report rape be ended (a long-standing demand of women’s-rights activists) and proposed that sexual offenders to be barred from political office.
The armed forces also came under the spotlight, with a recommendation that “sexual offenses by armed forces and uniformed men in conflict areas” be brought under ordinary criminal law. Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, personnel in conflict areas are not punishable under civilian law. The act has been widely slammed by activists, particularly after the 2004 case of Manorama Devi, a woman allegedly picked up by soldiers of the Assam Rifles for suspected complicity with insurgents and who was raped and killed, her pelvis riddled with bullets. The issue came up again more recently in October 2011, when Soni Sori, a resident of Chhattisgarh, was arrested on charges of being a courier for the Maoists and allegedly assaulted with stones forced inside her vagina.
The commission finally recommended that police officers be required to register every case of reported rape and called for acts such as stalking and sexual harassment — currently not crimes — to be punished with prison terms. “What is needed to enforce laws is the sensitivity on the part of those who implement it,” Verma told reporters. “The state’s role is not just punishing criminals but also to prevent crimes against women.”
Making the system more responsive to women’s needs will be an uphill battle. There are currently 95,000 rape cases pending in Indian courts. Justice Leila Seth, a member of the Verma commission, said at the press conference that there was “institutional bias” against the weaker sections of society and noted that the police often refuse to take “complaints of rape victims seriously.” Existing laws, the panel said, have been rendered feeble by lack of enforcement. “The Indian rape law is strong,” says Monique Villa, chief executive officer of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which published a report last year ranking India as one of the worst countries for women to live in. “The problem with laws are that when not implemented, they are useless. The commission’s report is the first step but has to be followed by many others.”
Ultimately, broad attitudinal shifts will be required — legally, culturally and socially. “Let us hope that this tragedy would occasion better governance, with the state taking all necessary measures to ensure a safe environment for the women in the country, thus preventing the recurrence of such sexual violence,” the Verma panel concluded. “The nation has to account for the tears of millions of women and other marginalized sections of the society, which have been ignored owing to institutional apathy.”