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India's new rape law 'insufficient'

Publication Date : 05-02-2013


A landmark legal order aimed at curbing sex crimes in India is being widely panned by women as insufficient to protect them, forcing the government to say it is open to revision.

President Pranab Mukherjee on Sunday signed into effect harsher punishments for rape, including death in some cases, after a brutal gang rape sparked a wide call for safety for India's women.

The move, while remarkably fast for India's notoriously slow bureaucracy, does not go far enough, activists say. In some cases, it has made women more vulnerable. For instance, sexual crimes have been made gender-neutral, which means a woman can now be accused of rape.

We are in a worse position now," said Madhu Mehra, executive director of Partners for Law in Development, a legal resource group heading a campaign on women's safety. "There is a perversion of equality. This does not view the problem in its myriad forms."

The new order also fails to criminalise marital rape or allow sexual offences by soldiers to be tried in ordinary courts, both of which activists have clamoured for. Nor does it bar politicians accused of sexual crimes from contesting elections.

Various women's forums and hundreds of activists have written to ask the government to rescind the move and, instead, accept all the measures suggested by a panel of jurists formed after the December 16 gang rape in New Delhi of a 23-year-old woman, who later died.

That incident marked a watershed with its unprecedented public outcry, forcing the government to show urgency and sensitivity in dealing with an issue affecting almost half the country's population of 1.2 billion people.

Now, the government stands accused of being hasty and failing to hold enough discussions before issuing Sunday's ordinance, a legal order that must now be approved by parliament.

"The net result of these crucial omissions and no debate is that even though the government has fast-tracked the issue, it is once again being accused of not being transparent and (being) unilateral," an editorial in the Hindustan Times newspaper said yesterday.

The government said it approved the ordinance because of the issue's importance, and Parliament was not in session.

Reacting to calls for more deliberations, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said at the weekend that the government was still open to revising the order. "All you can do when parliament is not in session is bring an ordinance, which is what we have done," he said, adding wider consultations may be held and changes made when the order is placed before Parliament for approval.

Indeed, to many ordinary Indian women, the nitpicking by experts and activists appears less significant than the harsher punishments now approved for sexual crimes. "The law is much tougher now, so all those criminals will now think twice hopefully," said housewife Gita Medhavi from Mumbai.

Some experts, like former top police officer Kiran Bedi, agree with such sentiments. "There is still a long way to go, but this is a good beginning," she said.

But women's rights activists insist they will continue their protests to "rectify" the loopholes in the new order. A protest has been planned for February 21, when parliament opens.

"We won't leave the streets and (will) continue our fight," said Kavita Krishnan, a leading women's activist who is among about 1,500 human rights experts who have written to the government. "All the recommendations that can actually strike at the heart of those who break the law with impunity have been dropped."


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