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India toughens laws on sexual assault, trafficking after gang rape

India dramatically tightened its laws on sexual assault and trafficking yesterday, with a far-reaching package of measures rushed through to satisfy public opinion in the wake of the horrific gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi in December.

Women’s groups complained that the government had not gone far enough, particularly because it failed to outlaw marital rape and deal with the legal impunity enjoyed by members of the armed forces. But other activists said the new measures, which imposed much stricter penalties for a range of crimes, marked one of the most significant changes to India’s laws protecting women in the nation’s history.

Because parliament is in recess, and the government wanted to move quickly, it pushed through the changes in an ordinance that was approved by the cabinet Friday and signed into law by the president yesterday. They come into effect immediately but will need to be ratified by parliament within six months.

“This shows the intention of the government to take the issue very seriously,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, an activist who has spent the past decade fighting trafficking and child labor. “We now have to ensure this gets translated into law (by parliament) and the law gets enforced.”

A high-level committee headed by retired justice J.S. Verma was set up in the wake of angry protests that followed the rape to look at ways to protect Indian women. It went further than many people expected by recommending sweeping changes to Indian law and governance. Many of its recommendations have now been accepted.

In particular, India’s rape law has been changed to allow for stiff penalties for all types of sexual assault. In the past, rape was defined as penetration only, and anything short of that fell under the category of criminal assault on a woman with “intent to outrage her modesty,” an offense that carried a light penalty and was almost never enforced. That left women vulnerable to constant groping on public transport, for example, by men who knew they could never be prosecuted.

Separate offenses with strict punishments have been introduced for stalking, voyeurism, stripping a woman or carrying out an acid attack. For the first time, trafficking has been outlawed in India, with stiff penalties both for the trafficker and someone employing people who have been trafficked.

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