India's treatment of women condemned

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NEW DELHI -- Women in India face systemic discrimination and are regularly confronted with sexual harassment and violence, even as police fail to provide protection and the government has failed to enforce laws and policies intended to safeguard women's rights, according to a scathing special report released Wednesday.

The government report, drafted in response to the deadly gang rape of a young woman last month in New Delhi, amounted to a broad and damning indictment of the treatment of women by India's democratic institutions. It also was intended as a call to action: The three-person commission, led by a former chief justice of India's Supreme Court, challenged Parliament to act swiftly on its recommendations.

"We have submitted the report in 29 days," retired Chief Justice J.S. Verma said at a nationally televised news conference, noting that the commissioners worked quickly to present their findings before Parliament next meets in February. "If we are able to do it in half the time available, the government, with its might and resources, should also act fast."

The commission recommended a number of far-reaching changes. Among them were requiring police officers to register every case of reported rape; punishing crimes such as stalking and voyeurism with prison terms; changing the humiliating medical examinations rape victims endure; re-examining every appointed state police chief in the nation; cracking down on extralegal village councils that often issue edicts against women; and making new legal requirements so it is much more difficult for people charged with criminal offenses to hold political office.

India does not lack adequate sexual violence or gender bias laws, the commissioners found, but rather lacks the political and bureaucratic will to enforce them. "Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law, and not the want of needed legislation," they said.

India's government has often proved immutable to calls for progressive reform. Over the years, different commissions have issued recommendations on various subjects, only to see their reports gather dust. Even a major 2006 Supreme Court ruling calling for significant changes in policing remains largely stalled, with its recommendations far from being put in place.

But public outrage over the brutal Dec. 16 gang rape of a young woman on a private bus moving through New Delhi has remained fierce, prompting political leaders to promise swift action. The trial of the five adult defendants in the case is expected to begin as soon as today in a new fast-track court. Moreover, many lawmakers have promised legislative changes to address shortcomings in policing and gender bias.

"Women must enjoy freedom," Leila Seth, herself a former top court justice and one of the commission's three members, said at the news conference. "The state must practice equality."

The commission, with Mr. Verma as chairman, was created last month by India's Home Ministry and charged with making recommendations to improve laws dealing with sexual violence. Mr. Verma said public interest was extremely high, and that the commission received more than 80,000 suggestions. He praised the youthful protesters whose demonstrations over the rape case created mounting pressure on the government.

Rather than focusing on narrow changes in criminal law, the commission's report goes beyond the issue of rape to assess widespread discrimination against women, societal biases against daughters, workplace sexual harassment, child sexual abuse, trafficking of women and children and deep-rooted problems with Indian policing.

In particular, the commission said many states still needed to comply with the 2006 Supreme Court ruling, which, among other mandates, called for eliminating political influence over police departments, notably in the appointment of police chiefs. Moreover, the commission called upon police to prevent harassment on public transportation and urged construction of separate facilities inside police precincts for women and improved officer training for investigating sex crimes.

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