Approximately three and a half months have passed since the tragic death of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student from New Delhi, India. She died from severe physical trauma shortly after being gang raped in a bus by a group of men, which includes a minor who is currently being trialed in India’s juvenile court system. The victim hung on to life for two weeks before dying in the hospital.
Her family received about $90,000 in compensation from three state governments as well as a modern government apartment. The government also offered the victim’s eldest brother the choice between obtaining a state job and receiving a free college education. The family’s response to receiving this new material wealth is lukewarm at best; they, along with the rest of the world, continue to mourn the loss of their daughter.
Perhaps the family found a glimmer of solace when the Indian Parliament recently passed sweeping legislation that further condemns sexual violence against women. Under the new bill, stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment are now considered crimes. Moreover, repeat offenders and individuals whose criminal acts lead to the victim’s death are now subject to the death penalty. The law also puts more pressure on police authorities to take accusations of sexual assault more seriously by making it a crime to deny cases involving complaints of sexual abuse. Such a measure is supposed to address the problem of police indifference to sexual crimes.
The new bill, however, still needs the final signature of President Shri Pranab Mukherjee. And even if such a bill becomes an official law of the land, to what degree will it actually weaken the highly patriarchal and misogynistic structure of traditional Indian society? After all, being raped in India carries a heavy stigma that strongly counts against the female victim. Keeping the victim’s identity unknown was a means to protect the young girl from being deemed “impure” and disgraceful.
In general, many people consider the bill to be an important milestone in India’s path toward greater gender equality. If the bill becomes law, the new law would bring up a sleuth of legal questions that directly challenges India’s current legislation against sex crimes. For instance, the terms stalking and voyeurism are nonexistent in criminal legislation; the enforcers of the bill should be very clear in providing a thorough definition on such terms.
One major issue that the bill falls short in addressing is making marital rape a crime. Despite citizen-led efforts supporting tougher penalties against sex offenders, there has been minor legislative movement on criminalizing spousal rape. According to one study from the
International Center for Research on Women, one in every five surveyed Indian men admitted to forcing their wives to take part in sex. Another survey conducted by the United Nations Population Fund found that two-thirds of the surveyed females were forced to engage in nonconsensual sex. Keep in mind that such a figure may be understating the actual situation since some women want to avoid the social stigma that being a rape victim carries.
Legislation concerning marital rape clearly favors the husband. This is the case in many countries, including China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It was not until 1970, just about four decades ago, when the United States criminalized marital rape. Most of Europe followed suit in the 90s.
According to India’s Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, it is a wife’s duty to provide her husband sexual gratification. Not doing so is against religious sentiment. Legislators would have to amend the Hindu Marriage Act if they want to eventually criminalize marital rape. In other words, restructuring societal norms to decrease violence against women would automatically also entail a restructuring of Indian law. But one does not have to look outside the territorial backyard to hear horrendous stories of misogynistic injustice.