India panel pushes to criminalize sexual harassment, marital rape

A government appointed panel, set up a month ago to help quell street protests sparked by a fatal gang rape, received more than 80,000 suggestions for a criminal justice system overhaul.

By , Associated Press

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    Policemen are deployed in a district court where the accused in a gang rape of a 23-year-old woman are to be tried, in New Delhi, India, Monday. Legal proceedings in the fatal gang-rape attack on the student last month in India's capital began Monday in a fast-track court for crimes against women that has stirred debate over how best to deliver justice to rape victims.
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An Indian government panel recommended Wednesday the strict enforcement of sexual assault laws, a commitment for speedy rape trials and changes to the country's antiquated penal code to protect women in the wake of a fatal gang rape in New Delhi last month.

The three-member panel received more than 80,000 suggestions for a complete overhaul in the criminal justice system's treatment of violence against women since it was set up by the government a month ago to help quell street protests sparked by the rape. 

Women say they feel under siege and are so frightened they have structured their entire lives to protect themselves from harassment and attack. Many travel in groups, go out of their homes only during the day and carry sharp objects onto public buses to stab men who grope them.

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Those who are raped are often blamed by their families for the attack. If they report the crime, the police often refuse to file a report or try to get the victim and attacker to reach a settlement. If it reaches court, the case can drag on for years in the overburdened justice system.

"Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment, eroding the rule of law and not the want of knee-jerk legislation," said retired Chief Justice J.S. Verma, who headed the panel.

The panel recommended that police and other officials who fail to act against crimes against women be punished. It called for a crackdown on dowry payments to enhance women's status, since families are often forced into massive debt to get their daughters married. It also suggested the government appoint more judges to lessen the backlog of cases and ensure swift justice, and it called for updating the law to include crimes such as voyeurism, stalking and other crimes against women.

"We hope the Parliament will take the legislative suggestions given by the committee," and translate these into law, Verma said.

Verma advocated strict punishment to prevent sexual harassment and assaults against women and sought reforms in how police treat rape victims.

He called for speedy justice and the setting of a time frame to deal with cases of crimes against women.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office had no immediate comment about what it would do with the recommendations.

More than 100 women's rights activists, lawyers and ordinary citizens appeared before the commission during a recent hearing to offer suggestions for removing loopholes in the existing laws and scrapping some of its most offensive provisions.

Activists and lawyers have criticized the existing laws on crimes against women as so archaic and riddled with loopholes that they end up further traumatizing victims and allowing perpetrators to get away lightly.

Women's groups say the most egregious problem is the medical test that a victim has to undergo, which includes a vaginal exam to determine if the woman is sexually active.

Indian law only targets three crimes against women, rape, using force to "outrage her modesty," and making rude sounds or gestures aimed at "insulting the modesty of any woman."

Lawyers say those laws needs to be updated to include crimes such as sexual harassment, groping, stalking and acid attacks.

"Groping and stalking should be viewed as sexual assault. Stalking is a psychological terror on the victim. It should be specifically defined," said Mukul Mudgal, a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court.

Rebecca John, a criminal lawyer who spoke with the commission, said the "very lexicon of the law" needs to be changed to remove euphemistic and outdated terms.

"The very definition of crimes against women is faulty. Phrases such as 'outraging the modesty of a woman,' and references to her chastity or honor are irrelevant," John said.

Most of India's laws, including those on rape, were inherited from the country's former British colonial rulers and date back to 1860. Public pressure after highly publicized rape cases led to amendments in the rape laws in 1983 and 2003. But loopholes remain. The law, for example, does not recognize marital rape for anyone over the age of 15.

Women's groups have also called for ending political interference in police work that lets accused rapists persuade police to quash their cases by forcing women to reach settlements with their attackers.

"Those having clout are not held accountable even for blatant violations of laws," said a joint appeal by 10 women's groups made to the commission.

Human rights groups welcomed the panel's recommendations to widen the scope of sexual rape to include assaults on homosexual, transgender, and transsexual rape.

The commission has also recommended a uniform national protocol for the treatment and medical examination of rape survivors.

"This is something that women's and rights groups have been asking for for a long time," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director, Human Rights Watch.

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