Passionate protests, countless candles, endless banter & little action – 3 months after the Delhi gang rape, has INDIA changed?

Three months ago the horrific gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi shook the consciousness of INDIA. A lot has happened since 29 December 2012, the day she passed away.

There have been violent protests, candlelight processions, silent prayers and endless conversations have centered on the need for INDIA to change. Some called it the uprising of the indifferent middle class, for others it was a student movement and still others felt it was an issue for the women’s movement in India.

Whatever the perspective, three months later I think it is time for us to ask ourselves has something changed? Do we have a better understanding of women’s issues in India? Has the government started to look at “systemic change” as promised? Do I as a woman feel more secure in Delhi and elsewhere?

I am afraid to be branded as a cynic, but my heart says and events prove that nothing much has yet changed. While I do not deny that there have been a few measures to show some intent towards reducing crime against women in India, I can sense an aversion from the Government towards long-term commitment and continuous thought on the issue.

The 80-year-old Justice J.S. Verma, the former Chief Justice of India, and two of his colleagues were given the task of looking at the entire body of laws relating to gender justice and crimes against women in India. The Government of India appointed this committee on the 16th of December. With the help of 18 juniors and more than 70,000 suggestions from activists, civil society, media, lawyers and experts across India, the committee put forth the benchmark 569-page report on “Amendments in the Criminal Law” in just 29 days.

The report was well received by all sections of society and the tremendous effort of Justice Verma’s team was applauded. The report covered almost everything from voyeurism, offensive IPC sections to acid attacks and sexual assaults on women.

What impressed me were the unbiased, apolitical, balanced and rational recommendations that showed the metal of a few legal geniuses. working under extreme pressure in the most volatile situation. They came up with something so comprehensive within no time. How I wish we all could learn from the way the committee functioned.

The Government thanked and applauded the committee for its hard work and accepted many of its recommendations. However, certain key suggestions were promptly rejected. The Government has ignored criminalizing marital rape, reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and trying military personnel accused of sexual offences under criminal law, as well a barring politicians facing sexual assault cases from contesting elections. But the major recommendation that was rejected came in the form of “death penalty” for rapist’s verses “life imprisonment”.

“It was a unanimous suggestion of women leaders who have been fighting for the cause for decade,” Justice Verma said in an interview.  “The current trend is against the death penalty,” said Justice Verma in an interview. However the Government rejected it by arguing otherwise.

Based on the report, the government introduced an ordinance amending Indian Penal Code and other laws relating to rape and other sexual offences. And a law is likely to be passed in budget session of parliament next month related to the ordinance.

But women activists are not very happy with the ordinance, which makes the perpetrator of rape ‘gender-neutral’. This will mean that if a woman files a rape complaint against a man, he will be able to file a counter-complaint of rape against her.

The ordinance, in its present form, justifies and legalizes marital rape. Even if a wife separates legally from her husband, the husband will get a lenient (two-year) punishment if he rapes her. In India sexual assault by one’s spouse accounts for approximately 25% of rapes committed, but the Government seems to be in no mood to bring marital rape under the new law.

There has also been a big debate on reducing the age of a juvenile from 18  to 16 years of age. This is because one of the prime accused in the Delhi Rape case is 17 years old. There are contradicting opinions about reducing the age of a juvenile. Child rights activists feel there should not be generalizations based on one case, police and the girl’s family, however, want the juvenile hanged (which is not possible under the current law).

I am certain that the Government will hang all the 5 accused (except the Juvenile) mainly for two reasons: A big agenda points to the campaign for the 2014 elections and they will want to take the credit for delivering justice to the victim. It makes me wonder: can the death penalty scare rapists or potential rapists? Has this changed anything?

Over the past three months, we have been reading news of incest, gang rape, murder, from all over India. Shockingly 90% of the cases being reported are of Child Sexual Assault. The most recent one was the horrific rape and murder of three sisters (minors) who were begging for food in Bhandara, Maharashtra.

The Government is silent on Sex Education in schools, stronger programs for child protection, police reforms, and better political systems to have credible individuals as people’s representatives. After three months of passionate protests, countless candles and endless banter as a nation has INDIA forgotten its women and children?

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