Protest ... burning an effigy depicting rapists during a rally in New Delhi. Photo: AFP
NEW DELHI: India has dramatically tightened its laws on sexual assault and trafficking following the horrific gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi in December.
Women's groups complained that the measures fast-tracked into law on Sunday had not gone far enough, because they failed to outlaw marital rape and deal with the impunity enjoyed by members of the armed forces.
But other activists said the new measures marked one of the most significant changes to laws protecting women in India's history.
Strength in numbers ... women hold placards as they march during a rally organized by Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit (unseen). Photo: Reuters
Because parliament is in recess, the government pushed through the changes in an ordinance approved by the cabinet on Friday and signed into law by President Pranab Mukherjee on Sunday. They come into effect immediately, but will need to be ratified by parliament 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 labour. ''We now have to ensure this gets translated into law [by parliament] and the law gets enforced.''
A high-level committee headed by retired justice J.S.Verma was set up after the angry protests that followed the rape. Many of its recommendations have now been accepted. In particular, rape law has been changed to allow for stiff penalties for all types of sexual assault.
Candlelight vigil ... students hold candles as they pray. Photo: Reuters
In the past, rape was defined as penetration only, and anything short of that fell in the category of criminal assault on a woman with ''intent to outrage her modesty'', an offence that carried a light penalty and was almost never enforced. Separate offences 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 both for the trafficker and someone employing people who have been trafficked.
In effect, that means anyone employing children as maids in India - a not insignificant proportion of the population - could be jailed for at least five years, while 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 would be jailed for life.
The committee had recommended that members of the armed forces accused of rape be tried under civilian law. It had also recommended that MPs charged with rape and other serious crimes be forced to resign their posts and that marital rape be outlawed. All those recommendations were ignored, although the government insisted that it is open to possible amendments when the law reaches parliament.
''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.''
Five men pleaded not guilty on Saturday to charges of rape and murder in relation to the December incident. A specially convened court is expected to begin hearing evidence on Tuesday. A sixth suspect, who is 17, could face a maximum 3-year sentence.
The Washington Post