In response to the 16th December gang-rape incident in Delhi, the United Nations Entity for gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women called for a real response against structural and cultural oppression within India, stating ‘UN Women joins the Government and people of India in recognizing that we need to take tougher action together to change the present reality and culture of impunity.’ As a result of this the Verma Committee – convened in the wake of the tragedy – has produced a report. The report recommends legislation that includes punishment for rape in same sex relationships; within marriage and an obligation for the police to register all reported cases of rape. Whilst this report is not only hard line and uncompromising, it also rejects the death sentence as a punishment – showing a forward thinking approach that understands that the civil rights of women must not go hand-in-hand with a regressive attitude to other areas of human rights. Rather then than simply seeing a protectionist attitude, where women are merely objects protected by the state, what this report instigates is a role for women in actively constructing their state laws and civil structure. The report has come under some criticism from groups within India who see the changes as unrealistic and over-hasty. First Post India, for example, takes issue with treating marital and non-marital rape as equal offences:
equating non-consensual marital sex assaults with any other rape means the punishments have to be the same. This is fine as long as the woman is willing to consider breakdown of marriage as an acceptable byproduct
Such a criticism seems ill informed and blinkered, glossing over the structurally oppressive institutions that would see women divorced for this reason as second-class citizens. To criticize this report for its hard line in this respect is to ignore the very real positive changes it will see, and what will occur, as a result of it.
One such positive outcome from this report and the changes it has instigated is the support of the movement welcomed publicly by the UN Human Rights Chief to ban waste scavenging in India – an area where women of the lowest castes are forced to work. Whilst protests have been going on for some time – with a 63 day National March that ends this week– the publication of the report by the Verma Committee can be seen as central to bringing these protests to national and international attention, and creating a positive and constructive atmosphere – supported by legislation – that will hopefully lead to their success. Unfortunately it took a terrible tragedy to create the urgency in India for such a report to be produced; other developing nations should be looking to emulate these changes in legislation without the prompt of such an incident.