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India Tightens Sexual Assault Laws, Sentences

Change in Policies Comes After Brutal Attack of Woman on Bus

New Delhi — India dramatically tightened its laws on sexual assault and trafficking yesterday, with a far-reaching package of measures rushed through to satisfy public opinion in the wake of the horrific gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi in December.

Women’s groups complained that the government had not gone far enough, particularly because it failed to outlaw marital rape and deal with the legal impunity enjoyed by members of the armed forces. But other activists said the new measures, which imposed much stricter penalties for a range of crimes, marked one of the most significant changes to India’s laws protecting women in the nation’s history.

Because parliament is in recess, and the government wanted to move quickly, it pushed through the changes in an ordinance that was approved by the cabinet Friday and signed into law by the president yesterday. 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 labor. “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 in the wake of angry protests that followed the rape to look at ways to protect Indian women. It went further than many people expected by recommending sweeping changes to Indian law and governance. Many of its recommendations have now been accepted.

In particular, India’s rape law has been changed to allow for stiff penalties for all types of sexual assault. In the past, rape was defined as penetration only, and anything short of that fell under the category of criminal assault on a woman with “intent to outrage her modesty,” an offense that carried a light penalty and was almost never enforced. That left women vulnerable to constant groping on public transport, for example, by men who knew they could never be prosecuted.

Separate offenses 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 dramatic changes, if implemented, could provide significant deterrence for India’s huge child labor industry.

The ordinance went beyond Verma’s recommendations in just one area, with the government bowing to popular pressure to allow the death penalty when a rape left a woman in a persistent vegetative state.

Women’s groups had urged President Pranab Mukherjee not to sign the ordinance into law, saying the government had “betrayed” the people of India by failing to implement the Verma Committee recommendations fully. They have pledged to continue their protests this week.

The committee had recommended that members of the armed forces accused of rape be tried under civilian law, instead of being protected by a special law that gives them virtual immunity from prosecution. It had also recommended that parliamentarians 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 further discussions and possible amendments when the law reaches parliament, which is expected to approve the changes. The next step is a parliamentary committee, which will examine Verma’s recommendations in more detail.

“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.”

But Ribhu said there was still time to discuss those more politically sensitive issues in parliament. For the time being, he said the new law represented perhaps the most significant set of changes to India’s penal code to protect women since it was first implemented by British colonial rulers in 1862.

A law to outlaw the payment of a dowry when women are married was introduced in 1961 and tightened in the 1980s, while a bill to outlaw domestic violence came into force in 2006.

“Parliamentary debate can wait, public opinion can wait, but women need to be protected now,” Ribhu said. “Every single hour a woman is getting raped in India. Eighteen children get raped in a single day on average in India, and every single day, hundreds of thousands of women are assaulted, groped, stalked and trafficked.”

Five men pleaded not guilty Saturday to charges of rape and murder in relation to the December incident. A specially convened fast-track court is expected to begin hearing evidence tomorrow, and the men could face the death penalty if convicted. A sixth suspect, who is 17, will be tried in a juvenile court and could face a maximum sentence of three years.