Sexual Violence Laws: Feminist Advocacy and Empowering Justice

Session Report
Trisha Shivdasan

The Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi conducted a Three-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course on ‘Feminism: Fundamentals, Facets and Future’ from February 23rd to 25th, 2023. 

The course, spread over three-consecutive days, introduced the participants to the origins and trajectory of feminism, its contemporary and European aspects, intersectional feminism, feminist theory in India, and the intersection of law and feminism. It initiated a dialogue on the fundamentals and core values of feminist theory and encouraged a feminist consciousness within the participants. 

On the second day our first speaker, Dr Vahida Nainar, Independent Researcher, Gender Consultant, opened the discussion by outlining four primary aspects for discussion during the session: the history of law reform on sexual violence, the experiences of women subjected to sexual violence, the role of the Verma Committee of 2013, and the subsequent legislative changes and debates regarding punishments and implications of these reforms.

Historical Perspective:

Dr. Nainar began by highlighting the historical context of sexual violence laws in India, dating back to the Indian Penal Code of 1860. However, the need for reform was not seriously considered until a significant event in 1979, known as the Mathura rape case. In this case, four policemen were acquitted of raping a 16-year-old tribal girl, raising substantial concerns and sparking protests. This case marked a turning point in the feminist movement in India, leading to the emergence of women’s groups and activism.

Key Reforms Following Mathura Rape Case:

In response to the Mathura rape case, the Indian legal system saw important amendments. The first amendment stated that if the victim claimed non-consent, the court would presume it as fact, shifting the burden of proof to the accused. Custodial rape was also made punishable, with a significant shift in the burden of proof. These changes were groundbreaking and established a legal framework that prioritized the survivor’s rights and consent.

Identifying Gaps in Existing Laws:

Feminist groups involved in the reforms identified several gaps in existing laws on sexual violence. They pointed out that the law only recognized penile penetration of the vagina as rape, leaving out other forms of sexual assault, such as insertion of objects or forced oral sex. Additionally, provisions on “outraging the modesty of women” failed to categorize sexual assault as a serious violation, undermining the significance of the survivor’s body.

Challenges Related to Gender Stereotypes:

Dr. Nainar discussed the prevailing gender stereotypes and biases that influenced the legal system. Medical examinations often focused on injuries as evidence of non-consent, while courts considered factors such as the victim’s past sexual history, acquaintance with the perpetrator, and socio-economic status when passing sentences. These stereotypes worked against the survivor, leading to character assassination and reduced sentences for the accused.

Justice Verma Committee and Subsequent Reforms:

 One of the pivotal moments in advocating for law reform on sexual violence was the formation of the Justice Verma Committee following the Nirbhaya rape case in December 2012. The committee sought public opinions and recommendations for changes in sexual violence laws, providing feminist groups the opportunity to make submissions.

Recommendations made to the committee included changes in vocabulary, expanding the definition of rape, recognizing other forms of sexual assault, introducing the scope of aggravated sexual assault, and emphasizing the importance of affirmative consent. The subsequent legislative amendments imposed stricter punishments, including life imprisonment and the removal of judicial discretion in reducing sentences.

Debates on Punishment and Ongoing Challenges Surrounding Sexual Violence:

Debates emerged during the submission of recommendations and subsequent reforms. While feminists supported stringent punishments, they opposed the death penalty due to concerns about its effectiveness, potential mistakes, and the perpetuation of patriarchal views. Additionally, challenges related to the unintended consequences of mandatory minimum punishments, gender stereotypes, and issues surrounding compensation and protection measures were discussed. Ensuring equality before the law, especially for marginalized groups, remained a challenge.

Dr. Vahida Nainar’s session shed light on the historical background, struggles, and progress in sexual violence law reform in India. The session highlighted the critical role of feminists and women’s groups in advocating for a legal framework that respects and protects the rights of survivors while addressing challenges in the legal system and societal attitudes. The fight for justice and equality continues, necessitating ongoing discourse, engagement, and activism in this important field.

Acknowledgment: Trisha Shivdasan is a research Intern at IMPRI.

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