India’s new sex crime laws do not go far enough to protect women or tackle gender inequality, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women said on Wednesday.
The legislation was passed following the fatal gang rape of a student on a Delhi bus in mid-December that sparked nationwide demonstrations over the lack of safety for women.
New measures passed by Indian lawmakers in March increased punishments for sex offenders to include the death penalty if a victim dies, and broadened the definition of sexual assault.
But Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, said the laws were still not tough enough.
She told a news conference it was unfortunate that the opportunity to establish a substantive framework “to protect and prevent against all forms of violence against women, was lost”.
Her comments echoed those of other Indian women’s activists who praised the intent of the legislation but said it still had huge holes.
Campaigners are unhappy about lawmakers’ refusal to criminalise marital rape or increase the punishment for acid attacks on women from a minimum seven-year jail term.
The UN official, who toured several Indian states to obtain first-hand reports about violence against women, said she would release her findings to the world body next year.
She said she had heard on her 10-day visit about “sexual violence, domestic violence, cast-based discrimination and violence, dowry related deaths, crimes in the name of honour” and other offences.
She quoted one person on her trip as describing violence against women as spanning the “life cycle from womb to the tomb”.
Her trip came in the wake of a call in December by UN rights chief Navi Pillay for India to help rid itself of the “scourge” of rape after the 23-year-old bus victim died of injuries inflicted by six drunken men.
Manjoo said demonstrations in the wake of her death seemed not to have had any effect in curbing sex crimes.
“Sexual violence and harassment in India is (still) widespread, and is perpetuated in public spaces, in the family or in the workplace,” she said.
“There is a generalised sense of insecurity in public spaces, amenities, transport facilities in particular, and women are often victims of different forms of sexual harassment and assault.”
A total of 228,650 incidents of crime against women were reported in India during 2011 as compared to 213,585 the previous year, according to the latest figures of the government’s National Crime Records Bureau.
Manjoo said women belonging to minority Muslim and Christian communities are also subjected to “indiscriminate attacks” during religious rioting in India.
“This issue is of particular concern to many as the wounds of the past are still fresh for women who were beaten, stripped naked, burnt, raped and killed because of their religious identity in the Gujarat riots of 2002,” she said.
The anti-Muslim riots in the western state left more than 2,000 mainly Muslim people dead in an orgy of violence and arson, according to rights groups. The Gujarat government puts the death toll at about 1,000.