NEW DELHI – India’s lower house of Parliament on Tuesday passed a bill toughening punishment for sex offenders — including the death penalty if a victim dies — after the fatal gang-rape of a student sparked national outrage.
Members of the decision-making lower house approved the legislation, which also contains new penalties for stalking, groping, voyeurism and acid attacks.
The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill must now be approved by the upper house. Those convicted in incidents of gang-rape, the rape of a minor or rape by a policeman or public official would now be sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison. The sentence can be extended to a life term in prison. Under existing laws, rapists face imprisonment of seven to 10 years.
The bill also allows for the death sentence if a rape victim dies or is left in a vegetative state, while a provision requiring government approval for the trial of policemen, officials, politicians and judges on rape charges has also been lifted.
For the first time, the law criminalizes stalking and voyeurism, acts of sexual harassment that have long been grouped under the benign euphemism “love-teasing.” Under the new law, rapes that occur during religious and caste riots would also be treated as cases of aggravated sexual assault.
The law does not, however, address contentious issues such as marital rape or the legal impunity afforded Indian military officers. Nor does it include a provision to prohibit politicians charged with rape from running for office.
“This is just a first step in a journey of 1,000 miles,” Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a female lawmaker from the regional Shiromani Akali Dal party, said at the conclusion of the seven-hour debate.
The bill’s approval came four days after a 39-year-old Swiss cyclist was gang-raped in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in an attack observers said underscored the risks women face in India.
In January, a government-appointed panel recommended more muscular laws after a 23-year-old student was savagely gang-raped by six men and attacked with an iron bar on a bus Dec. 16. She died nearly two weeks later of massive internal injuries, after being airlifted to Singapore for emergency treatment.
Despite the unprecedented protests that galvanized tens of thousands of Indians, the number of incidents of sexual assault has not diminished. According to government crime statistics, one woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, but most incidents go unreported.
Some activists working to end the trafficking of minors were critical of the new law, saying its final version was watered down compared with what was initially proposed.
“Under the new law, trafficking of a minor is a crime only if rape or sexual exploitation occurs,” children’s rights activist Bhuwan Ribhu said. “This law does not try to prevent the whole process of trafficking of minors, which often leads to sexual exploitation. The sexual assault cannot be seen in isolation, but in the whole context of how trafficking takes place. A historic opportunity has been lost.”