Over the weekend, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and the Union Cabinet approved new provisions to the Indian Penal Code that create harsher punishments for sexual assault and rape. The laws went into immediate effect when President Mukherjee’s signed them on Sunday, but must be ratified by Parliament.
With the new provisions, the death penalty could be sought in rape cases where a woman is left in a vegetative state, whereas before the death penalty could only be applied when a woman died from her injuries. In addition, the new provisions tackle other forms of sexual assault, such as voyeurism, stalking, and groping, and provides tougher punishments for offenses that had previously carried little to no weight. Human trafficking is also criminalized under the new laws, which could impact widespread child labor practices in India.
While many are applauding the new ordinances, some women’s right activists believe that the new laws don’t go far enough. For example, under the new laws it is still legal for a husband to rape his wife and service members are protected under a special law that gives them impunity.
Public outrage over a gang-rape that left a woman dead and garnered international attention spurred the President and Cabinet to approve the laws even though Parliament was in recess. On December 16th, the 23-year-old medical student and her male partner were attacked while riding a bus in New Delhi. Both were severely beaten. The woman was raped repeatedly for nearly an hour before a metal rod was pushed inside her, critically damaging her internal organs. She was transferred to a hospital in Singapore and required multiple surgeries for head and intestinal injuries. She died as a result of her injuries two weeks later. Five men who allegedly attacked her are currently being tried in a special fast-track court. A sixth was determined to be a minor and will be tried separately in juvenile court.