New Delhi: Since the fatal gang-rape of a medical student on a Delhi bus three months ago, the government has professed that improving women's safety is at the top of its agenda.
Yet, a new proposal for tough anti-rape laws was not cleared by the cabinet at a meeting today, because senior ministers continue to disagree over key features of the bill, like whether the age of consent should be lowered from 18 to 16. Sexual intercourse for those below the age of consent is considered statutory rape.
Last month, in an effort to signal its determination to punish crimes against women, the government introduced tough new laws through an ordinance. Parliament has to clear the changes by March 22, when it breaks for a month, or the ordinance will lapse.
A group of ministers headed by P Chidambaram has been given 24 hours to reconcile differing opinions. The bill will then be cleared by the cabinet on Thursday, and discussed on Monday with leaders of all political parties.
Issues that are sticking points include whether the word "rape", which is gender-specific, should replace the gender-neutral "sexual assault" in the bill, and how to define voyeurism and stalking, which the bill identifies as criminal offenses for the first time in India. The bill also lowers the age of consent from 18 to 16, which could encourage child abuse, say critics. Supporters point out that teens are sexually active at a younger age now, and the existing law is misused to misrepresent consensual sex as statutory rape.
Law Minister Ashwani Kumar has shared concerns that voyeurism and stalking could be used to file false complaints. Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal wants the bill to provide punishment for those who are found guilty of lodging false complaints.