NEW DELHI India approved on Thursday a tougher new law to punish sex crimes, including death for repeat rape offenders, after the fatal gang rape of a student in December sparked unprecedented protests over the treatment of women in the country.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 or "anti-rape law" puts in place a slew of new provisions and tougher punishments, which include criminalizing voyeurism and stalking and making acid attacks and human trafficking specific offences.
The legislation is seen as a crucial step towards curbing rising cases of violence against women in the largely patriarchal country, but activists said it was weak and warned that much would depend on enforcement.
"Such legislation has come to India for the first time and the parliament has given its approval. It will create a revolution in the country," Home Affairs Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told Reuters shortly after lawmakers approved it.
Rape is just one of many violations women suffer in India, ranging from female feticide and dowry murders to acid attacks, trafficking and so-called honor killings.
But the savagery of the December 16 assault, where a 23-year-old student was gang-raped for an hour and tortured with an iron rod damaging her internal organs, shook the conscience of many Indians and stirred national debate about gender abuses.
Thousands took to the streets across India for days, forcing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to constitute a panel to recommend ways to strengthen laws to protect women. The new law incorporates some of the panel's suggestions.
The law maintains life imprisonment for rape as the maximum sentence, yet sets down the death penalty for repeat offenders and those whose victims are left in a "vegetative state".
It also expands the meaning of rape to include penetration of the mouth, anus, urethra or vagina with the penis or any other object without consent.
Gang rape has been recognized as an offence, while sexual harassment has been redefined to include unwelcome advances with sexual overtures and showing pornography without consent.
The law also punishes police and hospital authorities with imprisonment of up to two years if they fail to register a complaint or treat a victim.
Women's groups expressed satisfaction that their fight had brought change, but said the law should have been stronger.
Marital rape, for instance, remains legitimate, and the age of consent has been set at 18 years instead of 16, and politicians charged with rape can still run in elections -despite the government-panel recommending otherwise.
The law's proper enforcement remains key, activists said.
"I am not expecting wonderful progress in implementation. That is our next struggle," said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association.
"So this new law is not the end, but a step in a very long battle for gender equality in this country."
(Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty; Editing by Ron Popeski)