NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India missed a golden opportunity to tackle violence against women, by enacting a law that toughens punishments against sex offenders but fails to address the root causes and consequences of gender abuse, a U.N. expert said Wednesday.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, or "anti-rape law" was enacted last month, after the fatal December gang rape of a student sparked protests over the treatment of women in the largely patriarchal country.
The legislation, which includes death for repeat rapists, was based on a recommendations made by a panel headed by late former Chief Justice J.S. Verma, but it disappointed many activists who said it had been watered down.
Rashida Manjoo, U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women, who was on a 10-day visit to investigate gender abuses in the country, told a news conference that the making of a new law had presented a "golden moment" for India, but that this has had been lost.
"While this legislative reform is to be commended, it is regrettable that the amendments do not fully reflect the Verma Committee's recommendations," Manjoo said.
"This development foreclosed the opportunity to establish a holistic and remedial framework which is underpinned by transformative norms and standards, including those relating to sexual and bodily integrity rights. Furthermore the approach adopted fails to address the structural and root causes of and consequences of violence against women."
Manjoo, a South African national, said criminalising marital rape, lowering the age of consent from 18 to 16, and addressing sexual abuses faced by gays, lesbians and transgenders should have been part of the legislative reforms.
PAIN AND ANGUISH
Indian girls and women face a plethora of threats. These include sexual and domestic violence, dowry-related deaths, crimes in the name of honour, witch-branding, acid attacks, female foeticide, early marriage and human trafficking.
According to latest figures from the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 228,650 reported crimes committed against women in 2011, an increase of seven percent from the previous year.
Manjoo, who travelled to various regions of the country including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Manipur and Tamil Nadu, met with many women who shared their personal experiences of violence and survival.
"The pain and anguish in the testimonies of loss, dispossession, and various human rights violations, was visceral and often difficult to deal with," she said.
"The denial of constitutional rights in general, and the violation of the rights of equality, dignity, bodily integrity, life and access to justice in particular, was a theme that was common in many testimonies."
The U.N. envoy said that she did not meet with very senior officials, despite requests to meet with parliamentarians, the minister for women and child development, members of the judiciary and Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress-led coalition government.
She added that although it was part of her mandate, she also did not gain access to shelters, psychiatric hospitals, detention centres or jails.
"Unfortunately it didn't happen on this mission. But the norm on many of my missions is that I do get access to speaking to people," she said. "There was no refusal in India about meeting with anyone in particular. There was silence and silence is not acquiescence."