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I was spending some time today reading through the report of the Justice Verma Committee formed in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, to suggest amendments to criminal laws dealing with crime against women in India.
The committee has suggested a range of reforms dealing with all kinds of sexual crimes against women. It is not that the report is immediately going to alter the effectiveness of policing, crime investigation or court trials in India. However, what is particularly heartening is that the committee has not looked at crime against women purely through a lens of ‘protection’ of women. That lens looks at public spaces as a male prerogative, and woman as a fragile creature that needs to be kept away for her own benefit.
Instead, the committee has looked at crime against women through a lens of autonomy, which says that all women have a right to bodily integrity, in all spaces, and all circumstances. That itself is a good start for a country like ours, where women’s ‘character’, clothing and ‘background’ are the first things to be examined in the event of a crime.
The full report is available here, but based on my reading, here are 10 key points from the Justice Verma Committee report, as I understand them, with actual text from the report used to illustrate each point:
1. When a woman is raped, it does not mean that she has been shamed or ‘dishonoured.’ Nor is it a crime against her community’s ‘honour’.
“We believe that there is no danger and no shame or loss of honour in a victim seeking redressal by filing complaints and must in fact exercise, consistent with fundamental rights of women, the right to file complaints and bring offenders to book. We also think that it is the duty of the State to encourage such a climate and also to make available such resources that enable them to file such complaints.”
“We think that it is necessary for the police officers to be completely sensitised against the honour-shame theory, and to treat every woman complainant as an individual in her own right capable of asserting her grievance…We think that there has been a completely erroneous connection which is being made between a woman and a community. In other words, we feel very strongly that an assault on a woman is an assault on the person of the woman.”
2. The absence of violence does not mean the presence of consent.
“Consent must be real… Thus, if the consent is obtained after giving the woman a threat of spreading false and scandalous rumours about her character or destruction of her property or injury to her children or parents or by holding out other threats of injury to her person, reputation or property, that consent will also not be consent under the third clause as recommended to be amended…The 84th Law Commission Report correctly said that violence was not mandatory.”
3. There must be consequences, if police fail to register FIRs.
“What is most surprising is that Parliament has ignored the recommendation of the 84th (Law Commission) Report, which calls for the punishment of a station-incharge who fails to register information of a cognisable offence given to him.”
4. The definition of sexual assault, while including rape should also include any other forms of assault that challenge women’s bodily integrity.
“We are of the considered opinion that in the Indian context it is important to keep a separate offence of ‘rape’. This is a widely understood term which also expresses society’s strong moral condemnation. In the current context, there is a risk that a move to a generic crime of ‘sexual assault’ might signal a dilution of the political and social commitment to respecting, protecting and promoting women’s right to integrity, agency and autonomy. However, there should also be a criminal prohibition of other, non-penetrative forms of sexual assault, which currently is not found in the IPC, aside from the inappropriate references to ‘outraging the modesty’ of women in Sections 354 and 509. We recommended the enactment of Section 354 in another form while we have recommended the repeal of Section 509.”
5. Marriage is not a license to rape.
“We, therefore, recommend that: i. The exception for marital rape be removed. ii. The law ought to specify that: a. A marital or other relationship between the perpetrator or victim is not a valid defence against the crimes of rape or sexual violation; b. The relationship between the accused and the complainant is not relevant to the inquiry into whether the complainant consented to the sexual activity; c. The fact that the accused and victim are married or in another intimate relationship may not be regarded as a mitigating factor justifying lower sentences for rape.”
6. Acid attacks need greater focus – in law, and in terms of practical support for victims.
“The gender specificity and discriminatory nature of this offence does not allow us to ignore this offence as yet another crime against women. We recommend that acid attacks be specifically defined as an offence in the IPC, and that the victim be compensated by the accused. However in relation to crimes against women, the Central and State governments must contribute substantial corpus to frame a compensation fund. We note that the existing Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012, does include a definition of acid attack.”
7. The presence of AFSPA should not give armed forces personnel impunity for sexual violence in conflict zones.
“At the outset, we notice that impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence in the process of Internal Security duties is being legitimized by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is in force in large parts of our country… Sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law.”
8. Rape is not about “lust” or “loss of control.”
“Thus, rape and other forms of sexual assault have been found to be consistently deployed as an expression of power and must not necessarily be seen as ‘crime of passion’ only. Sexual assaults on women and children has been found to be have been used consistently by State and private persons in conflict areas including in communal violence; where by raping women, men attempt to establish their superiority over the other. The Committee is of the view that such forms of sexual assault deserve to be treated as aggravated sexual offence in law.”
9. Imprisonment terms in sexual assault cases can be strengthened. Capital punishment is not necessarily a deterrent, while it can be applied in the rarest of rare cases (as provided for in Indian law),
“As far as term sentences are concerned, section 376 of the Indian Penal Code currently provides for punishment of either description for a term which shall not be less than 7 years but which may be for life or for a term which may extend to 10 years. We however recommend that in the proposed Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2012, the minimum sentence should be enhanced to 10 years with a maximum punishment being life imprisonment…We therefore recommend a legislative clarification that life imprisonment must always mean imprisonment for ‘the entire natural life of the convict’”
10. Drop the two-finger test.
“It is crucial to underscore that the size of the vaginal introitus has no bearing on a case of sexual assault, and therefore a test to ascertain the laxity of the vaginal muscles which is commonly referred to as the two-finger test must not be conducted. On the basis of this test observations/ conclusions such as ‘habituated to sexual intercourse’ should not be made and this is forbidden by law.”