Photo: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri
Campaigners have criticised the Indian government after ministers cleared a new tougher anti-rape bill to curb widespread sexual violence against women – but failed to make marital rape a criminal offence.The Congress-led cabinet has been under intense pressure to strengthen legal protection for women following national protests over the gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus last December.
The 23-year-old physiotherapy student died from extensive internal injuries caused by six men who raped her as she and a friend returned from a visit to the cinema.
Under the new bill, convicted rapists face a minimum sentence of 20 years to natural life and the death penalty if the victim dies from her injuries or is left in a persistent vegetative state.
It also sets tougher penalties for non-sexual but gender-related acid attacks on women and makes new offences of stalking and voyeurism following a series of cases of secretly recorded film clips of women circulated by mobile phone messages.
The new bill introduces new protections for women to prevent them being charged in cases where rape allegations have not been proved. It reduces the age of consent from 18 to 16 and defines rape as a crime which can only be committed by a man against a woman.
“[The] Anti-rape Bill has been cleared. All recommendations of the Group of Ministers [have been] accepted,” Law Minister Ashwini Kumar said on Thursday following a cabinet meeting to discuss the proposals.
The proposals, which must now be approved by parliament, received a mixed reception from women’s rights campaigners who said India still had a long way to go to giving women the legal right to refuse sex.
The cabinet’s failure to criminalise rape within marriage reflected the alarming fact that many ordinary people in India do not regard it as a crime, said leading commentator and novelist Nilanjana Roy.
Campaigners believe many of India’s rapes are committed by husbands against their wives. Overnight crime statistics reveal that more than 99,000 Indian women surfed cruelty from their husbands in 2011.
Ms Roy welcomed many of the measures as “all things we’ve been fighting for,” but said the government does not yet dare to tackle marital rape because it “strikes at the heart of the arranged marriage system.
“Marriage is predicated on your family’s consent rather than hers. In most arranged marriages you marry a stranger and he has rights over you, you hope he will be kind and sensitive but there’s no guarantee. So when you say sex within a marriage requires a woman’s consent, people in India can’t get their heads around it,” she said.
“It’s a shock to realise that in a large section of the country the assumption is a woman loses her fit to a lot of things when she gets married, but these people would be horrified if you said they were sanctioning rape,” she added.
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