A Ray of Hope

Posted on March 13, 2013, by Shomira Sanyal, Campus Ambassador, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, India

The brutal and horrific gang rape of a 23-year-old paramedic student in a bus in Delhi in mid-December grabbed headlines in the national and international media. Brutal, horrific, heinous as it was, her case was not an isolated incident. The National Crime Records Bureau reports that every 22 minutes, a rape is committed in India. The truth is that many minors are victims of this dastardly act including girls of specific tribes whose voices are often muted or simply go unheard. Many questioned why this case in particular generated such an unprecedented public outrage and mass protests across the country, but reasons notwithstanding, it served as a catalyst to generate public debate and political action on an issue that rarely finds its place on the public stage.That a tardy government awoke to take concrete steps and succumbed to the pressures of those who elected them is but a tiny ray of hope.

The newly comprised three-member JS Verma Committee, whose sensitive and comprehensive report was submitted in a record time of 30 days, has raised the bar of punishment for a wide range of existing and proposed sexual offences. That in the process they welcomed suggestions from a cross-section of society — women’s organizations, religious leaders, politicians, students and the common people on the streets — with an open mind and a will to work on all aspects in minute details was heartening. They discussed aspects of gender-based violence that Indian politicians have historically shied away from: marital rape, acid attacks and the issue of armed force personnel, police personnel or elected representatives who are in a position of power to perpetuate such crimes. After the submission of the report, they engaged with audiences on national television and brought these sensitive issues openly into national consciousness.

In its bid to assure the nation that it was proactive and serious about the issue, the government managed to present an ordinance based on the report. The cabinet approved and cleared the ordinance, which was presided over by the prime minister. Two days after the clearance by the Union Cabinet, the President has assented to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance 2013. The ordinance recommends death penalty in cases where rape leads to death of the victim or leaves the victim in a ‘persistent vegetative state’. It also proposes to replace the word ‘rape’ with ‘sexual assault’ to expand the definition to other types of sexual crimes against women. However, the government has been criticized by activists for leaving out the controversial issue of marital rape, and women’s groups, in agreement with the Verma Committee report, did not support the death penalty.

We must accept that this is a small step in the right direction and an ordinance or law will not suffice to remove this malaise from our society. A lot more debate is necessary before future law is based on this ordinance. But what use is a law if not reinforced with administrative action, judicial reform and police reform? What remains high priority is that we ensure a high conviction rate for sexual crimes and we see our courts bring about swift justice. Every case is important – every act of violence needs to be heard and dealt with. As a nation, we must take these vital steps to assess how India combats gender violence and patriarchy.

Shomira Sanyal is a Half the Sky Movement campus ambassador. She joined the program because she saw that violence against women was universal and wanted to be a part of a global movement highlighting and taking action to resolve these issues on a local level. She is currently a student at Lady Shri Ram College for Women in New Delhi and has had internships in rural India, which has given her the opportunity to interact with women working at the grassroots level and making a difference to communities.

Shomira served as judge on the Students Rebuild Awards this month alongside Sheryl WuDunn, America Ferrera, Olivia Wilde, Eileen Fisher, Jeffrey Sachs, Zainab Salbi and Maggie Doyne to award five women $10,000 to support their efforts to empower women and their communities.

Vinay Charul and Shomira at One Billion Rising                     Women hold up Half the Sky