On Thursday, India’s parliament passed a sweeping new law that aims to protect women against rape and sexual violence in response to a series of rapes that have plagued the country. The new law, which still requires the president’s signature, makes stalking, voyeurism, and sexual harassment crimes throughout the country. (Voyeurism is defined as the sexual interest in or practice of spying on individuals engaged in intimate behavior, such as undressing, intercourse, etc.) The law also requires the death penalty for repeat offenders and for rape attacks that result in the victim’s death. Finally, the law raises the age of consent from 16 to 18.
The legislative initiative began after a 23-year-old student was attacked and raped by a group of men on a city bus in Delhi. She died from injuries shortly after. The incident sparked violent protest throughout the country. In fact, government statistics indicate that, in India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes, yet the government has done very little to curb these crimes. Just this week, a Swiss tourist was gang-raped in front of her husband while on a biking trip through central India. Furthermore, on Tuesday, a British tourist jumped from a third story window in order to escape sexual advances from the hotel owner.
Women’s rights activists and sympathizers alike have rightfully celebrated the new law. For example, Vrinda Grover, a senior lawyer and women’s rights activist, stated, "It’s a significant moment. We have taken many steps forward. [But] much, much more needs to be done."
However, there has also been some critique of the new legislation. Ranjana Kumari, a women’s activist and director of the Center for Social Research think tank, is appalled at the parliament’s refusal to criminalize marital rape. "If bodily integrity is the issue, and consent is the issue, than certainly rape in marriage should be included," she said.
Kumari also criticized the 10-year maximum sentence for acid attacks, indicating that it was too light. (Acid attacks are defined as throwing acid at an individual with the intent of torturing, maiming, or killing him or her.) Furthermore, Kumari criticized the elevated consent age, stating that the parliament was clearly out of touch with the sexual activity of modern youth. Lastly, she stated that "implementation remains the larger challenge." Hopefully, we will begin to see positive results of the legislation in the new future.
Overall, the new legislation in India is a victory for women’s rights. However, it sheds light on shortcomings in similar legislation here in the United States, or rather, indicates a need for such legislation in the United States. The U.S. has no national definition of rape. In fact, the term is hardly defined at all. Instead, legislation favors terms such as "sexual assault," "sexual conduct," "sexual abuse," "sexual battery," etc. Rape legislation is determined at the state level, and, as a result, laws regarding rape, or whichever term you deem appropriate, vary considerably.
So perhaps the United States needs to follow suit, creating universal definitions for criminal activities such as rape.