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The government’s move to make rape a gender-neutral crime is a welcome step towards harmonising current anomalies in laws relating to sexual offence. The proposed changes are aimed at broadening the definition of rape, so far restricted to penile and vaginal penetration. The replacement of the word ‘rape’ with ‘sexual assault’, a gender-neutral distinction, will also bring male victims within the legal ambit.

Endorsing the proposal the Law Commission has observed that “Not only women but young boys are being increasingly subjected to forced sexual assaults…[which] causes no less trauma and psychological damage to a boy than to a girl subjected to such offence.”

It’s important to consider in this context that the Delhi High Court in 2009 decriminalised homosexuality as far as it pertained to consensual sexual acts of adults, thereby demarcating such acts from sodomy, the equivalent of rape.

 The best among the government’s proposals is the one that will bar cross-examiners from bringing into question the character and previous sexual experiences of the victim, very often used to dilute the victim’s case and even discourage her from coming forward, allowing the perpetrator to go scot free. Given the patriarchal mindset of crucial institutions like the police, it’s hardly surprising that the present legal lacuna has been used at will against women, heightening the victim’s trauma.

 It’s time that laws related to sexual offence – from eve-teasing, molestation, rape to acid throwing and stalking – are made more sensitive and in sync with changing times. Rape, as activists have correctly pointed out, must be understood as an experience of brutal violation and degradation and not just the act of penetration. However, some activists believe that clubbing ‘rape’ with ‘sexual assault’ and other crimes might dilute the gravity of rape itself. To factor in this criticism the law should define various grades of sexual assault, with more grievous categories attracting correspondingly more stringent punishment. International best practices can be invoked in this regard.

 Such legislative changes will, no doubt, have positive implications for female and male victims. And very stringent punishment must be decreed in case of custodial rape – in police stations, shelter homes and orphanages. It must be remembered, however, that legislative interventions and upscaling of punishment alone won’t act as deterrents. At the heart of the present problem lies the abysmal rate of conviction and a corresponding culture of impunity. It’s equally important, therefore, to implement existing laws and increase the conviction rate. That alone will really deter sexual offenders.


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