ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Gender-Neutral Law on Sexual Violence

A stringent law is welcome but will the police and judicial machinery pitch in?

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2012 recently approved by the union cabinet for introduction in Parliament has attracted cheers and criticism in equal measure. The Bill, which deals with laws on sexual violence and proposes to include acid attacks under stand-alone provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as well as provide for punishment to perpetrators of sexual assault in police custody, shelter and remand homes and hospitals, has been uniformly welcomed. However, it is the move to widen the scope of sexual offence by replacing the term “rape” with “sexual assault” and to make the offence gender-neutral that has led to differences of opinion between advocates of women’s rights and those of the sexual minorities.

Gay rights activists who demanded that Section 377 of the IPC which criminalises sexual activity “against the order of nature” be struck down have also asked for the crime of rape to be made gender-neutral. They welcome the contemplated changes as men facing sexual violence from men as well as young boys (and girls) sexually abused by older men will now be covered by the law. However, a section of women’s rights activists have pointed out the potential negative fallout for women when these changes are made. In 2011, the National Crime Records Bureau recorded a little over 2.25 lakh crimes against women. Compared to other crimes, the rate of reported rapes had increased dramatically. Making rape gender-neutral will lead to dilution of the seriousness of the crime, they feel. Second, it will leave women and girls open to harassment since the law can be used against them despite the fact that sexual crimes by women against men are so rare that they are unheard of in the country. At the same time, widening the scope of the offence will help victims who face equally horrifying sexual violence that is not counted as rape if it does not involve penile penetration. Such crimes are presently tried under Section 354 which talks of “outraging the modesty of a woman” and is a bailable offence carrying a maximum sentence of two years and a minimum one of a mere fine.

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