Women's groups and civil society in India have welcomed a government-appointed panel's recommendations to review laws to provide for speedier justice and enhanced punishment for sexual crimes.
Pratibha Devi, a middle class housewife in the Indian capital, was elated when Justice J. S. Verma, who headed a committee set up to review rape laws, came up with his report calling for stricter implementation of existing laws, police reforms and gender sensitization.
"He has suggested major changes in an entire gamut of laws to bring speedier justice for crimes against women. Now it is for the government to accord top priority and implement the committee's proposals," Devi told DW.
Three years back, her teenage daughter was raped after she attended a party in an affluent area. Until now, the case drags on in the court, notorious for its inordinate delays and adjournments. Worse, the accused is on bail.
New suggestions, game-changers?
"I hope with these new plans, there is a change in mindsets and the judiciary wakes up to such heinous crimes and delivers justice," adds Devi.
Unlike several other previous committees which have failed to come up with their reports on time, this committee has come up with detailed recommendations to deal with crimes against women, including stalking, acid attacks, molestation and rape.
The nationwide movement demanding the amendment of the laws regarding crimes against women in the wake of the brutal gang-rape and death of a 23-year-old medical student in New Delhi on December 16 has forced the government to constitute the committee.
The committee has come out with a list of recommendations ranging from increasing the duration of life imprisonment to the "natural life" of the convict to introducing jail terms for crimes such as stalking.
At the same time the report has ruled out the death penalty and chemical castration as well as suggestions to reduce the juvenile age from 18 years to 16 years.
More importantly, the report has categorically asked for a review of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and other related legislations to ensure that military personnel guilty of crimes against women are unable to take refuge under these laws to escape punitive action. It suggests they are instead tried under the criminal laws of the land.
Panel report welcomed
Women's groups and lawyers, many who deposed before the committee hailed the report.
"This is a path-breaking, progressive and modern report. It is a document that requires serious consideration and immediate implementation. And more importantly it gives women a new charter of rights," lawyer Rebecca Mammen John told DW.
"The comprehensive reforms suggested by Justice Verma and his colleagues will protect the right to dignity, autonomy and freedom of victims of sexual assault and rape," Kalpana Kannabiran, director of the Hyderabad-based Council for Social Development told DW.
"The focus of the entire exercise is on protecting the right to dignity, autonomy and freedom of victims of sexual assault and rape," adds Kannabiran,
Public calls for the death penalty for rapists were rejected by the report.
Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research said the report had made a big departure from the way sexual assaults were viewed.
"I am glad that he has not got swayed by the public demand for hanging. He (Verma) has made good remarks on marital rape and women's rights over their body," said Kumari.
The Verma committee received around 80,000 suggestions and wrapped up its work in a record 29 days, following the massive uprising and protests from a cross-section of society across the country.
The ball now is firmly in the government's court; and as the report notes, unless the recommendations are implemented speedily, it would "end the exercise conducted by this committee in futility."