After receiving more than 80,000 suggestions after last month's fatal gang rape, an Indian government panel recommended today that the country update and more strictly enforce its sexual assault laws as well as resolve to fast track rape trials. It's a very necessary start, but still just the beginning.
Here are some of the panel suggestions from the AP:
The panel recommended that police and other officials who fail to act against crimes against women be punished. It called for a crackdown on dowry payments to enhance women's status, since families are often forced into massive debt to get their daughters married. It also suggested the government appoint more judges to lessen the backlog of cases and ensure swift justice, and it called for updating the law to include crimes such as voyeurism, stalking and other crimes against women.
"Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment, eroding the rule of law and not the want of knee-jerk legislation," said retired Chief Justice J.S. Verma, who headed the panel.
It's true that tackling legislation is a crucial first step. But are the laws really the "root cause," or are there more pervasive cultural reasons why women say they "feel under siege and are so frightened they have structured their entire lives to protect themselves from harassment and attack"? Many of the most problematic laws and practices illustrate how more education and awareness are needed alongside legal changes.
For example, consider the horrid "two-finger test," in which a (usually male) doctors sticks his hands up a woman's vagina to figure out whether she still has a hymen and whether her vagina is "lax." You know, to figure out whether she's the type of lady who might consent to being gang raped on a moving bus and beaten with iron rods.
Then, there's the fact that antiquated Indian laws only currently acknowledge three crimes against women: rape, using force to "outrage her modesty," and making rude sounds or gestures aimed at "insulting the modesty of any woman." At least "rape" isn't described as "stealing her purity with a magic sword"?
Lawyers say groping and stalking need to be viewed as sexual assault instead of in terms of modesty or purity. "The very definition of crimes against women is faulty. Phrases such as 'outraging the modesty of a woman,' and references to her chastity or honor are irrelevant," [criminal lawyer Rebecca John] said.
Then there are police who try to convince rape survivors to settle with their attackers instead of actually protecting and defending them — a whole other terrible can of worms.
Despite all this, the panel's suggestions are still key. The AP reports that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office "had no immediate comment about what it would do with the recommendations." So we'll keep you posted.