This Could Be the Most Important Part of India's Anti-Rape Law

The country's decrepit justice system works against sexual violence victims. Here's how the new bill may help.

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest near India's parliament in New Delhi Feb. 21, 2013. (Reuters)

When a 23-year-old medical student died after being brutally gang raped in New Delhi in December, protesters filled India's streets for weeks, fueled by outrage that such a crime could occur in broad daylight and on a shared bus.

India's parliament seems to have heard them loud and clear, judging by a tough new bill passed there today that aims to crack down on sexual violence.

The New York Times' India Ink blog has a good summary of the new measures, and they seemingly address all of the various aspersions hurled at India's society and police in the aftermath of the case: That women in India don't feel safe traveling alone, they feel stigmatized after they're assaulted, they're treated poorly when they turn to the authorities -- in general, that Indian women aren't, fundamentally, equal.

The new bill makes big changes to the way rape and sexual assault cases are prosecuted. It strengthens punishments for sexual assault by police, alters definitions for certain crimes, and even enacts a new prohibition on "voyeurism."

In a controversial move, it allows the death penalty in cases of rape if the victim dies or is left in a vegetative state. It also raises the age of consent to 18 from 16 -- a statute that prompted hot debate in a country where one in every two women are married before their 18th birthday.

"The bill ... aims to protect mothers and sisters of this country. Over years, such stringent law has not been made," Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said after it passed.

It's so stringent, in fact, that it raises the question of how bad India's rape epidemic must have been to necessitate such a harsh and sweeping law.

It's true that India has a terrible problem with sexual violence -- but looking at rape police reports wouldn't give you that impression at all.

In an analysis of UNODC data from 2011, Sharad Goel, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research found that India actually ranks near the bottom of the international list of countries according to rape prevalence. Here's her chart, via the blog Messy Matters, with a chart by Kelly Savage.

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Meanwhile, the United States and even European countries like Belgium and France were at the top of the list.

So what's wrong with this picture?

If you look closely, you'll see that this is the number of police-recorded rape offenses-- the only kind we can really measure. There are certain aspects to Indian culture that particularly exacerbate the problem of underreporting, which is already one of the biggest issues in gathering rape statistics.

As my former colleague Rama Lakshmi and I reported, India's justice system in its current form works against rape victims at every turn.

Women or girls who are assaulted are often blamed for the attack, and occasionally even made to make peace with or marry the attacker in order to save face in their community.

There are few female police officers (and too few cops in general), so even if women get to a police station, they might be intimidated out of filing a report.

From there, the justice system putters on in at an excruciatingly slow pace. From the Washington Post:

The country has about 15 judges for every 1 million people, while China has 159. A Delhi high court judge once estimated it would take 466 years to get through the backlog in the capital alone.

And to top it all off --

For rapes that do get reported, India's conviction rate is no more than 26 percent .

That's why the most crucial parts of the new law might be the ones that punish police for ignoring complaints of sexual assault victims and mandate that such reports be taken by female officers.

From the Ink blog:

"The bill lays down punishment for police officers who fail to record the initial complaint ... Such officers can receive jail terms of six months to two years."

The bill requires that all initial reports involving sexual harassment, disrobing, voyeurism, stalking, rape and gang rape be taken by women officers only."

And in order to do something about the lag time on sexual assault cases, the bill also requires that rape trials be completed "'as far as possible' within two months from the time the police file charges against the accused."

Of course, it remains to be seen if it's even possible for a country as large, diverse, and still-developing as India to reform this quickly and fully. But the fact remains that rapists can't be sentenced for their crimes unless a police report is written and a case prosecuted. Time will tell if the law's provisions on the age of consent and capital punishment were overkill, but at least the bill attempts to tackle the problem of underreporting and impunity.