New Delhi: The Justice Verma committee on Wednesday recommended the strict enforcement of sexual assault laws, faster rape trials and changes to the country's antiquated penal code to protect women in the wake of a fatal gang rape in New Delhi last month.
The three-member panel received more than 80,000 suggestions for a complete overhaul in the criminal justice system's treatment of violence against women since it was set up by the government a month ago to help quell street protests sparked by the rape.
"Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment, eroding the rule of law and not the want of knee-jerk legislation," said retired Chief Justice J.S. Verma, who headed the panel.
Justice Verma advocated strict punishment to prevent sexual harassment and assaults against women and sought reforms in how police treat rape victims.
Activists and lawyers have criticized the existing laws on crimes against women as so archaic and riddled with loopholes that they end up further traumatizing victims and allowing perpetrators to get away lightly.
Women's groups say the most egregious problem is the medical test that a victim has to undergo, which includes a vaginal exam to determine if the woman is sexually active.
In the so-called 'two-finger test," doctors probe the vagina to determine if a hymen is present and to try to determine if the vagina is lax, which is taken as evidence the woman routinely has sex and thus consented to intercourse. Often, the doctor is male.
"The two-finger test, which has been found to be not only unscientific and unnecessary but also subjects the complainant to further trauma and humiliation should be immediately stopped," said Kirti Singh, of the All India Democratic Woman's Association.
Indian law only targets three crimes against women, rape, using force to 'outrage her modesty," and making rude sounds or gestures aimed at 'insulting the modesty of any woman."
Lawyers say those laws needs to be updated to include crimes such as sexual harassment, groping, stalking and acid attacks.
"Groping and stalking should be viewed as sexual assault. Stalking is a psychological terror on the victim. It should be specifically defined," said Mukul Mudgal, a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court.
Rebecca John, a criminal lawyer who spoke with the commission, said the 'very lexicon of the law" needs to be changed to remove euphemistic and outdated terms.
"The very definition of crimes against women is faulty. Phrases such as 'outraging the modesty of a woman,' and references to her chastity or honour are irrelevant," John said.