A positive start

In spite of the passage by both houses of parliament of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill and the President’s assent for it, the legislation still seems to be a work in progress.

This was partly because the Bill had to be passed in a hurry to replace the February ordinance on crimes against women and partly because there was no wide consensus on all the issues that came up for discussion with the ordinance and before that with the gang rape and murder of a girl in Delhi which occasioned the ordinance. Most members made it clear that they were not happy with some provisions of the Bill and wanted a fuller debate in future to plug any loopholes.  The government agreed and promised to come forward with a stronger and more effective law in course of time.

Still the law is a positive measure because it is more comprehensive than the provisions in existing legislations on crimes against women and more stringent in its approach to them and the penalties prescribed for the offences. The punishment for a rapist has been enhanced and is the most extreme in some cases. The bill has done well to take cognisance of crimes like stalking, voyeurism, disrobing and acid attacks which were not covered earlier by sections in the Indian Penal Code.  Some issues which were left out were marital rape, review of the provision for sanction for action under the AFSPA against armed forces personnel accused of crimes against women and the demand for barring politicians charged with rape from running for office. The age of consent, which has been raised from 16 to 18, was another contentious issue. This was done under the pressure of some opposition parties and the government probably agreed because it wanted to ensure that the bill is passed before the deadline. Ideally the age of consensual sex and the age of marriage need not be the same, because sexual relationships should  not be seen as permissible only within the framework of marriage.

Some of these contentious issues will be discussed in times to come. The law also may have to be changed in accordance with changing social perceptions and realities on the role of women and evolving man-woman relationships. The strength of patriarchal attitudes was seen in some speeches by members even as they debated and approved the provisions of the Bill. The law is not enough to change them.

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