In the backdrop of the Kathua and Unnao rape cases and the outrage in the country that followed, the Union Cabinet has finally decided to make stringent the laws relating to rape especially those related to assault on minors. The ordinance passed by the cabinet on April 21 allows courts to pronounce the Death Penalty on those convicted of raping a child below the age of 12, and life-term for raping a girl below the age of 16. It also prescribed that there would be no anticipatory bail for persons accused of raping a girl under 16. The years of imprisonment for those convicted for rape have been increased also. The cabinet’s ordinance comes after four states in the country recently passed laws making rape of a minor punishable by death. The change in the statutes is the need of the hour due to the increasing number of violence against women, especially the girl child.
Although the demand for change in the laws relating to rape was brought about very strongly in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang rape, it was not enough. The Central government needs to seriously ponder the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee Report on sexual offences, which was submitted in 2013. The report is a watershed in the way sexual offence are viewed and perceived in India.
To pick a few: In the preface to the report the committee specifically mentions the lack of good governance resulting in the erosion of the Rule of Law. “Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law, and not the want of needed legislation. If there was a felt need for more laws, there are many recommendations of expert bodies and judicial decisions that remain unimplemented.”
Again in the preface the reports mentioned that attitudinal changes were required ‘to correct the aberration of gender bias…have to be brought about in the institutions of governance to improve the work culture, and in civil society to improve the social norms for realizing the constitutional promise of equality in all spheres for the womenfolk.’
The committee concluded that there was a ‘direct and rational nexus between methods of parenting and school curriculum and the right of women, especially the girl child.’ It stated further: “Through proper parenting and appropriate school curriculum, India can teach its children to respect the members of the other and the same sex, and would to a great extent succour gender mainstreaming. We firmly believe that this would lead to reduction in drop-outs, and would enable better understanding, mutual acceptance of each other when children enter into adolescents. These practices in schools are a must.”
Along with the cultural aspects of how sexual offence was generally viewed till recently, the country’s hands are already dirtier with a more serious form of sexual offence. As a country India has unofficially supported and even used rape—by agents of the state—as a weapon in many of the conflicts areas of the country. The reason why the Justice Verma report had also specifically recommended the review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The commission observed that the “impunity of systematic sexual violence is being legitimised by the armed forces special powers act.”
The current ordinance has made the sentence severe and the rules more stringent. The change in the perception however will not happen by changing statutes as mentioned by the Verma committee. There is a more serious need for gender sensitisation that is required in the country at present—the age-old perception and practice of discrimination against women has to end first.