Gender Neutral Law on Sexual Offences Will Not Protect Women
The recently passed Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013 has far reaching affects. Most of the changes in Indian Penal code and other related acts have made the law more gender neutral. This single fact is very damaging to the protection of women from sexual harassment. It may be recalled that the changes in law were to replace the ordnance promulgated in the backdrop of brutal rape of a para medical student in a moving bus at Delhi. There was a lot of resentment and agitation. It was expected that the modification in criminal law would facilitate speedy disposal of the cases pertaining to sexual assault against women. But redefining the offences as gender neutral dilutes the law even if there are other victim friendly aspects.
Gender neutral provisions in amended law
Let us view the amendments to criminal law from the angle of gender neutrality. The gender neutral offences are acid attack, sexual harassment and stalking. As regards acid attack, this is not a sexual offense as such but is more akin to causing severe hurt. Acid attack permanently disfigures a person's face. Mostly, women are victims of this offence. Physical beauty and charm is considered a valuable asset of a woman and hence acid attack is very heinous. But law makes no distinction as to gender. The offender and victim both may belong to either gender and punishment is also same. An acid attack is punishable by an imprisonment for a period of ten years which may extend to imprisonment for life and also a fine of ten lakh rupees. An attempt to acid attack is punishable with imprisonment of minimum five years and maximum seven years and also fine. Similarly stalking is also not merely a sex related offence. Stalking means chasing or following vigorously an individual. This may be for other purposes like spying, keeping watch on employee or some family member.
Sexual harassment is also a gender neutral offence. Offender and victim both may be of any gender. Physical contact or advances and demand for sexual favors are punishable with rigorous imprisonment up to five years or with fine or both. There are some lighter offences of sexual harassment like making sexist remarks, showing porn or other unwelcome conduct of sexual nature. These are punishable with imprisonment up to one year or with fine or with both.
Trafficking of women has also been made gender neutral. Not only gender neutral, this is also not exclusively sex related. Human trafficking may not be only for prostitution but may be for other forms of exploitation viz. slavery, forced organ removal etc.
Surprisingly, even rape is now gender neutral. The term 'rape' has been substituted with 'sexual assault'. The offender may be anyone irrespective of gender. Also penetration may not be only penile. Not only male organ but even other objects may be used for penetrating the victim's body parts- not only sex organs but even mouth. So far a woman could not rape. Now she may also be offender of sexual assault. Moreover, even compelling another person to penetrate his organ or any object may be considered as sexual assault. It appears that the law framers have various kinds of sex toys in their mind. This change is really very disgusting from the angle of protecting women from rape. The new definition will hardly help women. The punishment for sexual assault is imprisonment for seven years but which may extend to life and also with fine. There is a new section for extreme cases where the victim succumbs to death or is put in a persistent vegetative stage. In such cases, punishment will be rigorous imprisonment not less than twenty years but may extend to life ore with death. In case of gang rape, persons involved irrespective of gender are liable for punishment with rigorous imprisonment for a term not less than twenty years but which may extend to life and shall pay compensation to victim to meet medical expenses and rehabilitation.
Gender specific offenses
The offences of public disrobing of women is gender specific. Luckily, framers of law have not made this gender neutral. Male nudity is not considered so offensive as female nudity. There is punishment of imprisonment not less than three years which may extend to seven years and with fine for assault in or use of criminal force to any woman with the intention of disrobing or compelling her to be naked in any public place.
Similarly, voyeurism is women specific. This offence is akin to public disrobing of a woman. The only difference is that instead of disrobing a woman, the offender secretly watches her nudity. He encroaches upon her privacy by peeping in bathroom and bedroom or dressing room. Voyeurism is defined as- watching or capturing a woman in 'private act' which includes an act of watching carried out in a place which, in the circumstances, would reasonably be expected to provide privacy, and where the victims genitals, buttocks or breasts are exposed or covered only in underwear, or the victim is using a lavatory, or the person is doing a sexual act that is not of a kind ordinarily done in public. Thus, law protects a woman from voyeurism when she is not in a public place. If she chooses to wear scanty clothes in public and even appear nude, there is no offense watching her nudity. The punishment for this offense is in case of first conviction, imprisonment not less than one year but which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine, and be punished on a second or subsequent conviction, with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine.
Likely consequences of gender neutral law
As regards acid attack, there is nothing wrong in making this gender neutral. In such cases, victim is clearly recognized and justice must be given to him or her. But making other offenses too generic by clubbing with non sexual matters and also gender neutral, the very object of providing protection to women from sexual harassment is defeated. Such gender neutrality is even ridiculous. It appears that law framers have not appreciated the ground reality. There may be a handful of ultra bold women who could cause sexual harassment to others or even sexually assault. The great majority of cases is of women victims. It may be okay to make stalking gender neutral as the victim may be easily identified.
What is feared is that gender neutrality of sexual offenses and dilution of the offenses by clubbing non sexual motives will not only make the law less effective. This will also lead to excessive litigation. The more powerful and musclemen and money power will succeed in further oppressing the women. The sexual assault and harassment law will face the same fate as other offenses like causing hurt in Indian Penal code. Presently, the offender also files counter FIR against the victim. Similarly, when victim files a case of sexual assault, the offender will also file counter FIR alleging that not he but the woman sexually assaulted him by forcing him to penetrate her. Moreover, when the offenses are being generalized and clubbed with non sexual purposes and gender neutral, the police stations specifically for women become purposeless. When rape (sexual assault) is gender neutral;sexual harassment is gender neutral and stalking is gender neutral, there are no women specific offenses that could be related to women police stations.
It is felt that except acid attack, all other offenses viz: sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking be made gender specific. For male victims, the existing law on sodomy (unnatural offense), causing hurt or injury, defamation should suffice. Even if a male could be victim to sexual offense, the trauma and damage caused to him is far less than that to a woman and there is no justification in equating him to female victims.
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