NEW DELHI — In India, the government has passed tough new laws to tackle sexual violence against women. Demand for new legislation was sparked by a brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in India’s capital in December. Women’s rights activists say the laws do not go far enough in addressing the pressing issue.
A harsher punishment for rape will for the first time include the death penalty in cases where the victim dies or is left in a vegetative state. The minimum sentence for gang rape, rape of a minor or rape by a person in authority has been doubled from 10 to 20 years.
Trafficking of women and children will also be punished by longer jail terms. Voyeurism and stalking have been defined as new offenses.
The tough new measures were signed into law by the president on Sunday. They had been passed with great speed in a country where law-making can be a tortuous process. Some of the measures were recommended just two weeks ago by a government-appointed panel set up to study women's safety issues following the huge public outrage over the gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi in December.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram says the ordinance meets the urgent need for an effective law to protect women. “Since there is a universal demand that the laws must be amended immediately, and criminal law can only apply prospectively, the government came to the conclusion that there was a strong case to promulgate an ordinance," he stated. "The government hopes that the stringent position will have a deterrent effect on potential criminals.”
Women’s rights activists say the tough new laws mark a good beginning in tackling sexual violence directed against women. But they are concerned that two key recommendations of the government panel on women’s safety -- laws against marital rape and sexual assault by military personnel -- are not covered by the new laws.
Ranjana Kumari of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi says domestic violence is a huge problem in India. “Marital rape is something which needs to be recognized by Indian law and also by Indian society. Unless we recognize that women will continue to be treated as object of sexual gratification," she said. "And will not be granted their own autonomy, independence and bodily integrity. You cannot go against consent of women, she is not your property.”
The government reached out to activists on Monday saying it is not ruling out addressing issues such as marital rape in future.
Minister Chidambaram says the government needs more time to reach a consensus on issues where there are divergent views.
“Some of these rather difficult issues, just as one section or one group of persons hold a strong opinion, there is an opposite opinion held by another section. It is not as though there is complete unanimity on the issues on which we have not yet taken a position,” said Chidambaram.
There is also some controversy about including the death penalty for rape. Some lawyers and activists say the government had gone beyond the panel’s recommendation, which had ruled out death as punishment for rape.
The laws that have come into effect will have to be passed by parliament within six months.