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Sat Feb 9, 2013, 07:52 PM

india gang-rape trial brings fractional changes

Indian gang-rape trial brings fractional change


NEW DELHI — The Globe and Mail

Published Friday, Feb. 08 2013, 9:21 PM EST

When a big white bus was driven into the parking lot of a Delhi high court this week, a collective shudder seemed to run through the city.
The vehicle is a sort of Exhibit A in the trial of five of the six men accused in the December gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who died of injuries inflicted on her in that bus. Her companion, a 28-year-old software engineer who was badly beaten in that attack, had come to the pink cement courthouse in a wheelchair to testify as the main witness for the prosecution. His first task was to identify the bus; the judges and lawyers accompanied him out to the parking lot. Later in the courtroom, he also identified the five accused.

. . .

But many critics charged the changes were far from sufficient. The new regulations cover everything from acid attacks to stalking to the forcible stripping of women in public, but they’ve left out some contentious issues, including marital rape and sexual violence in the military. The debate has brought into stark relief the myriad ways in which Indian women are frequently attacked in disputes ranging from the most intimate, in their domestic lives, to the very public, over property, caste and armed conflict.

The changes were recommended by the Verma Committee, a three-member team headed by former Chief Justice J.S. Verma, appointed by the government in the wake of the bus rape and given one month to overhaul the law, some of which dates back to British rule. Backed by a zealous team of young lawyers working 20 hours a day, the committee synthesized 80,000 suggestions from people all over India who were invited to phone, write and e-mail their thoughts after the gang rape. These they merged with suggestions from jurists, women’s groups and survivors of sexual assault to produce recommendations for reform based on the argument that failures by police, the legal system and government have enabled and indeed normalized violence against women.
. . . .
Among the key changes: Broadening the definition of consent, so a woman’s failure to resist physically can no longer be regarded as consent, and requiring “unequivocal voluntary agreement” to sexual activity; a victim’s sexual history is no longer considered relevant and she cannot be cross-examined about it or her “moral character”; rapes can be committed by more than penises, in that they can include objects used as substitutes for a phallus; while the archaic idea of “outraging the modesty of a woman” remains in the law, there are new sentences of one to three years for offensive touching, gestures or words, treating them as sexual assault.

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