Delhi gang-rape case could be turning point for India's rape laws

India is considering a fast-track court process to expedite rape cases and step up punishment for sexual violence on the heels of the bus rape incident that spurred outrage across India.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP
An Indian student places a candle and shouts slogans during a candlelight vigil in Allahabad, India, Friday, Dec. 21. Indian officials announced Friday a broad campaign to protect women in New Delhi following the recent gang rape and brutal beating of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus in the capital.

The gang-rape and beating of a 23-year-old woman on a private bus as it cruised around Delhi Sunday could be the turning point for improvements in the country’s rape laws.

After nearly a week of massive protests across the capital demanding tougher punishments for rapists and better protection of women, the parliamentary standing committee will meet next week to discuss creating fast-track courts for those accused of rape. 

Proposals for changes in the law come at a critical time. Many people say there is little deterrent for rapists: Because of social stigma, few females come forward to report the crime. Those that do often have to wait years for their cases to be heard. And even then, the conviction rate is just 34.6 percent, according to the National Crimes Record Bureau. Delhi has the highest number of rapes in the country, with 572 rapes reported last year. While Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code lists punishments of up to a life sentence for rape, those convicted are often let off after serving only a few months or years.

But fast-track courts could change how people think about such crimes by expediting the trial period. Proposed amendments would also provide better privacy for women with in-camera trials, which would keep them from being in the same room as the accused.

While politicians and activists are encouraged that the public outrage could push parliament to reform laws, Anil Bairwa of the Association for Democratic Reforms says fast track courts will not solve the problem.

He points to a report released this week that found as many as 27 Indian politicians in senior positions have rape or molestation cases pending against them.

“When the politicians passing the legislation and governering states across India have themselves been accused of rape and molesting women, it really shows where this country is in its nascent laws to protect women. Hopefully fast-track courts and stiffer penalties will start bringing some of these people to task.”

Leaders from all political walks of life have pledged their support to improve the safety of women in Delhi and across the country. That these normally polarized politicians could come together on this issue, says Nirmala Sitharaman, the national spokeswoman for the Baratiya Janta Party (BJP), shows that politicians are united in their pledge to improve the laws. 

Ms. Sitharaman says the gruesome case that propelled the issue into the national spotlight shows how little perpetrators fear punishment: In the Delhi bus gang rape, both the woman and her friend who tried to protect her were thrown out of the moving bus – on a highway on the outskirts of the city, according to court testimony.

“Though the government may move slow in many areas, the commitment members of parliament have made to pass new legislation to protect women is real,” she says. “This terrible act has shaken the policymakers in this city to their core.”

But not everyone is convinced change is on the way. The pressure people across the city have been putting on the government this week must continue, says Dr. Vandana Prasad of the Ministry of Women and Child Development. “Announcements for changes in a law can mean something happening in one week or 10 years.”

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