Think it through

Amid the clamour for a revision of the law against sexual crimes, a group of women's organisations have recommended to the Justice J.S. Verma Committee that the definition of rape be made gender-specific. In the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012, passed by the Union cabinet in July, both aggressor and victim are referred to by the gender-neutral "person" and the word "rape" is replaced with "sexual assault". This would broaden the scope of the law, which would now recognise various forms of sexual violence, not just penile penetration of the vagina without consent, as defined in the IPC.

Internationally, gender neutrality, centred on the recognition of the possibility of male victims and female perpetrators, has been an increasingly influential idea. Critics of traditional rape laws have argued that they do not cover a range of behaviour that is similar to the legally defined act of rape. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill reflects this global trend towards gender neutrality the US federal law on rape also uses "person" instead of gendered appellations and in 1994, male rape was recognised by English law. Yet the apprehensions of women's groups seem to stem peculiarly from the Indian context, that such a law would disregard the deep-rooted bias against women. All the empirical evidence so far indicates that acts of sexual violence here are committed mainly by men against women. Many feel that such a law trivialises the experience of women who routinely suffer harassment, violence and stigma in a society that is tilted against them. Then there are fears about misuse not only by men who could use the law to their advantage in a system where the scales are tipped in their favour, but also against people in consensual same-sex relations, as long as section 377 remains on the statute book.

Before Parliament holds a special session to pass a more stringent rape law, the government and civil society groups must dwell on the contours of such a law on how well it stands up to international standards of juridical practice as well as on how it accommodates the Indian context. Without such nuanced consideration, the special session would remain a gesture in an emotionally fraught moment.

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