NEW DELHI // The Indian cabinet yesterday cleared the draft of a controversial new anti-rape bill that lays down harsher punishments for a broader range of sexual crimes.
The proposed legislation is the next step in the government's attempts to address sexual violence in response to the public outcry that followed the gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi in December.
If passed by parliament, the law would make gang rape punishable by sentences ranging from 20 years to life imprisonment. A rapist whose attack leads to the death or paralysis of the victim could face the death penalty.
The bill also criminalises predatory sexual behaviour such as stalking, the forcible stripping of women and voyeurism.
The law would also reduce the age of sexual consent from 18 to 16. And it would define rape strictly as a crime committed by a man against a woman, instead of beinga gender-neutral term.
But the government faces a race against time to introduce the bill in parliament and enact it into law before a parliamentary recess begins on next Wednesday.
The government signalled its intent to crack down on sexual offences last month when President Pranab Mukherjee signed an ordinance that prescribed more stringent punishments for such crimes. It will lapse on April 4 and be replaced by the new bill.
But it has drawn mixed responses from politicians, activists and women's rights groups.
Krishna Tirath, the minister for women and child development, opposed the reduction of the age of consent, saying it would "send the wrong message to society" by encouraging 16- and 17-year-olds to have consensual sex.
She said she was also concerned that "men would get away by having sexual intercourse with girls who have crossed the age of 16".
But Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, welcomed the lowering of the age of consent and said that the morality of young people should not enter into a consideration of the law.
"You can't be criminalising consensual sexual activity between two 17-year-olds and equating that to statutory rape," she said.
But she added that the bill's definition of rape was unsatisfactory.
"We had been objecting to the accused in rape cases being considered gender-neutral, because we didn't want adult men accusing women of rape," said Ms Krishnan.
"But we thought the victim must be gender neutral. Rape can be perpetrated on a man, a woman, a transgender, anybody. We still hope to get that changed."
As has been the norm in Indian law, the proposed law does not recognise or punish marital rape. Nor does it remove the immunity from prosecution granted to soldiers in conflict zones.