India panel pushes new laws after deadly rape

Committee proposes changing the country's sexual assault laws and guaranteeing speedy rape trials.

    India panel pushes new laws after deadly rape
    The panel was set up in response to street protests sparked by the rape [Reuters]

    An Indian government panel has recommended a series of changes, including an overhaul of the country's dated 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 changes in the criminal justice system's treatment of violence against women since it was established by the government last month to help quell street protests sparked by the rape.

    The suggestions ranged from banning a traumatic vaginal exam of rape victims to ending political interference in sex crime cases.

    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. Those who are raped are often blamed by their families for the attack.

    "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 JS Verma, who headed the panel.

    'Trauma and humiliation'

    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.

    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.

    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.

    "The... test, which has been found to be not only unscientific and unnecessary but also subjects the complainant to further trauma and humiliation should be immediately stopped," said Kirti Singh, of the All India Democratic Woman's Association.

    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.

    Most of India's laws, including those on rape, were inherited from the country's former British colonial rulers and date back to 1860.

    SOURCE: Associated Press


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