After the fatal gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey on December 16 last year sent shock waves around the world, India has done some self-analysis on how it treats its women. Stricter laws on sexual violence have been implemented, but even a year later, a lot needs to be done to make women feel safer.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, recommended by Justice Verma Committee was passed by Lok Sabha on March 19, 2013 and by Rajya Sabha on March 21, 2013 and replaced an Ordinance promulgated on February 3. The Centre also amended various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Indian Evidence Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
The new law stated that an offender can be sentenced to a minimum of 20–year prison sentence for rape and, in the event the victim dies, death penalty. Perpetrators of acid attack will get a 10-year jail term. But the law refused to criminalize marital rape, which disappointed many activists. Ranjana Kumari, a women’s activist and director of the Center for Social Research think-tank, said, “If bodily integrity is the issue, and consent is the issue, than certainly rape in marriage should be included.”
The definition of rape was expanded to include penetration by objects or any body part. “Sexual abuse in all its forms including sexual harassment was made illegal,” said India’s additional solicitor general, Indira Jaising. New laws aimed at safeguarding women were passed; the Parliament overhauled its criminal code and criminalized offences such as stalking, sexual harassment and voyeurism.
Fast-track courts were established to speed up trials in sexual assault cases which earlier took years to conclude. Some ten months after the crime, such a court found four of the adult suspects guilty on all counts and sentenced the men to death by hanging.
“We have a collective responsibility to ensure the dignity and safety of women”, said Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, while announcing women’s-focused initiatives as part of the 2013 federal budget.
Delhi Police set up women help desks at police stations and a Crime Against Women Cell was established for redressal of complaints and grievances of women in distress.
In the spotlight
The gang rape triggered a wave of nation-wide protests demanding stricter laws and better safeguards to combat violence against women. The widespread media coverage of the case has also led to an increased awareness of the issue. The assault sparked public dialogue on patriarchy, which many blamed to be the crux for lack of respect of women in India. It helped alter the way many perceive victims of sexual violence as well as women who are victims of sexual violence see themselves.
“Rape victims are no longer considered outcasts. Stories of rape survivors are now being used as a medium to instil courage to fight sex crimes in India,” said Ranjana Kumari.
Greater reporting of sex crimes
“Women have been forthcoming in reporting crimes against them. They have been empowered by law and the response of civil society,” said Jaising. This view is shared by K. T. S. Tulsi, a senior lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India. According to the lawyer, the social stigma associated with rape is getting reduced. “Girls are becoming more assertive and they are open to complaining. They don’t feel that the society is going to stigmatize them.”
This development is supported by the latest government figures. According to local media reports, 1,330 cases of rape were reported to police in New Delhi this year until October, against 706 cases for the whole of 2012 (via The Hindu).
Safeguarding women at work
“The sense of security at the workplace will improve women’s participation in work, resulting in their economic empowerment and inclusive growth,” said the Indian government in a statement after the law was passed. The Supreme Court is one of the most high-profile bodies to have set up an internal committee to combat sexual harassment. Many other private and state-run companies have now setup a mechanism to address violence in the workplace, although many more are yet to.
Experts say that a lot still needs to be done to make women feel safe in the country, as there has been little progress made in addressing the attitudes that legitimize violence and discrimination against women. “Rape cultures are nourished by norms, attitudes, and practices that trivialize, tolerate, or even condone violence against women,” Ranjana Kumari explains.
“The subject of gender sensitization must be introduced from the grass root level in schools, colleges and the workplace. We need to educate men and women on women’s rights under the law and work with communities to develop a gender sensitive society that is underpinned by respect and equality,” the rights activist said.
This view is supported by Kamini Jaiswal, a legal expert and lawyer at India’s Supreme Court, who believes that in order to bring about real change, it is imperative to empower all women, most of whom are still financially and emotionally dependent on their male relatives. “What we see in the bigger cities and metros is not the true picture. Women can barely raise their head and voice in most households. This needs to be dealt with literacy because most women don’t even know their rights.”
Despite the increased attention on women’s issues, crimes against women are on the rise. In the latest high profile case, police arrested the editor-in-chief of India’s leading investigative magazine, Tehelka, after a female colleague accused him of sexually assaulting her. Following this was a similar case where an intern filed accusations of sexual assault against a retired Supreme Court judge.
“The concern for personal security and perceived increase danger to women as a result of the rape cases was perhaps a factor in US students’ decision regarding study in India,” said Nancy Powell, U.S. ambassador to India. Fear of violence has even deterred some students and tourists from travelling to India.
But, this is not enough. India still needs to go a long way if it wants its women to feel safe, respected and socially accepted.
Disclaimer: This article has also been published on Women’s Web.