Rape law and reform


The laws relating to rape and sexual assault are set to undergo a radical overhaul with the Union Home Ministry readying a draft Bill on the subject. Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s remarks suggest that the proposed legislation is likely to be based on the Law Commission of India’s 172nd report, which called for a thoroughgoing review of our rape laws. The 2000 report was prepared following a direction from the Supreme Court that loopholes in the law relating to rape and sexual assault should be identified with a view to plugging them. At least two major changes seem to be on the anvil. First, the meaning of rape, which Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code construes as non-consensual sexual intercourse, will be broadened to cover other forms of penetrative acts that fall outside the purview of the existing definition. The Law Commission, the National Commission for Women, and various feminist organisations have supported such a widening of the definition of rape on the ground that the existing legal provisions neither reflect nor deal adequately with the various kinds of sexual assault women are subjected to in India. The restrictive interpretation of the term ‘penetration’ in the Explanation to Section 375 fails to address the myriad ways victims of sexual crime can be humiliated — physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Rape, as feminists have argued, must be understood as an experience of brutal violation and degradation and not just the act of penetration.

The proposed legislation will also broaden the definition of rape in another respect — by making it gender-neutral. This is principally to protect males, particularly young boys, who could be victims of homosexual crime. As the Law Commission observed in its report on rape laws: “Not only women but young boys are being increasingly subjected to forced sexual assaults…[which] causes no less trauma and psychological damage to a boy than to a girl subjected to such offence.” It is a mistake to regard gender-neutrality as a dilution of the rape law. While girls and women are victims of the vast majority of sexual crimes, boys and men suffer too. Statistics reveal that one out of 10 rape and sexual assault victims in the United States and England is male. Indian laws relating to rape have remained virtually unchanged since 1862, when the IPC came into force. (Some amendments made in 1983 have not made much of a difference.) It is necessary to review the law in a humane and progressive manner, factoring in what we know about the patterns of sexual assault and the severe trauma it inflicts on victims. The Home Ministry’s draft Bill, which promises to do precisely this, will be closely watched.



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