India’s New Rape Laws Draw Flak from Rights Groups

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Manish Swarup / AP

Activists from different women's organizations shout slogan during a protest in New Delhi on Feb. 4, 2013

The debate over how to provide better legal protection to victims of sexual violence rages on in India, with rights groups vociferously objecting to a new antirape ordinance that the government enacted over the weekend. After being approved by Cabinet last week, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee signed a bill on Sunday designed to toughen up existing laws by permitting capital punishment in rape cases in which the victim is murdered or left in a “persistent vegetative state” and allowing harsher punishment for crimes like acid attacks, sexual harassment and stalking.

The bill was no doubt envisioned as a quick, high-level response to the Dec. 16 gang rape that shocked this country and sent thousands of protesters to the streets to call for greater safety and justice for women. But rights groups have been quick to cast doubt on the move, calling it hasty and incomplete. On Jan. 23, a specially convened committee headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice J.S. Verma, known as the Verma commission, submitted a 657-page report to the government suggesting a broad and ambitious rethink of Indian criminal law relating to sexual violence, calling for faster justice and harsher punishment.

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The commission made more than 80,000 recommendations in its report. Among its key recommendations was that marital rape be made a criminal offense punishable with prison time. It also called for other legal changes that spoke to more fundamental cultural shifts, such as including domestic helpers in a pending sexual-harassment bill, an end to the humiliating and maligned “two-finger” test by which a doctor examines whether a rape victim has been sexually active before being attacked, a crackdown on the informal male-run village governance bodies called khap panchayats that have often called for regressive action toward women in rural India, and for military members accused of sexual attacks to be tried in civil courts. (Read more of our coverage on the Verma commission here.)

The ordinance signed over the weekend, which must be approved by Parliament within six months, reflects the government’s approach to use harsher punishments as a deterrent to help reduce violent crimes against women. It also echoes widespread calls from many Indians for capital punishment for the five accused men the Delhi gang-rape case, who are currently on trial in a court in the capital. (A sixth suspect is expected to be tried separately in a juvenile court.) While permitted in the constitution, the death penalty is rarely used in India. In its report, the Verma commission, responding to input from several rights group and the broader social debate about the death penalty, advised against its use in rape cases, instead recommending that the minimum sentences be extended and life sentences be better enforced.

(MORE: Panel Calls for Legal and Social Changes in Wake of Delhi Gang Rape)

This discrepancy and others between the commission’s recommendations and the ordinance have caused several women’s and human-rights groups to speak out. “The ordinance falls short of the Verma-commission recommendations,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said on Monday. “We hope that there will be a robust discussion in Parliament before this law is enacted, and that amendments will be made to ensure that the hard work of the commission and protests by citizens hoping for change are not wasted.” Others in the capital have reportedly called for protests this week in response to the bill.

Officials, meanwhile, have defended the government’s quick action, telling the media on Monday that the ordinance is a “first step” and assuring that recommendations made by the Verma commission that were not included in the bill will be debated in the session of Parliament scheduled to begin later this month.

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