India's Parliament passed a sweeping new law Thursday to protect women against sexual violence in response to a fatal December gang rape and beating of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi.
The new law, which still requires the president's signature before it becomes official, makes stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment a crime. It also provides for the death penalty for repeat offenders or for rape attacks that lead to the victim's death. The law also makes it a crime for police officers to refuse to open cases when they receive complaints of sexual attacks.
Activists hailed the law as a milestone in India's women's rights movement, even as they raised concerns over some of its provisions as well as the country's poor record of law enforcement.
"It's a significant moment. We have taken many steps forward," said Vrinda Grover, a senior lawyer and a women's rights activist. "Much, much more needs to be done."
The bill was passed Thursday by the upper house of India's Parliament, two days after the lower house approved it.
The law was hurried through Parliament after the Dec. 16 gang rape sparked nationwide protests demanding the government do more to safeguard women.
The government set up a panel headed by a retired judge, which recommended sweeping changes to India's laws governing crimes against women. The Cabinet quickly passed an ordinance incorporating some of those suggestions, but Parliament had to pass a new law by next month or the ordinance would have expired. Many lawmakers complained that the law was being rushed through without the proper debate or opportunity for amendment.
Speaking in Parliament, Home Affairs Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said the new law was the most stringent effort to curb sexual violence ever in India.
But Ranjana Kumari, a women's activist and director of the Center for Social Research think tank, said significant problems remain, especially the government's refusal to criminalize marital rape.
"If bodily integrity is the issue, and consent is the issue, than certainly rape in marriage should be included," she said.
She also criticized the 10-year maximum sentence for acid attacks as too light and said the government's decision to make 18 the age of consent was out of touch with the sexual mores of modern youth.
While she praised much of the law as a "huge victory," Kumari worried that an insensitive police force and overburdened judiciary could make it difficult to enforce.
"The implementation remains the larger challenge," she said.
The law's passage came less than a week after police said a Swiss tourist was gang-raped in central India.
Grover said the law sent an important signal that India will no longer tolerate this type of behavior, but there now needs to be a sustained effort to change attitudes toward woman across the country.
"When you are fighting sexual violence against women, you are not just fighting crimes. You are also fighting impunity and prejudice," she said.
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