NEW DELHI -- India's Parliament passed a comprehensive bill on Thursday to impose stronger penalties on men who attack women and to criminalize offenses like stalking and voyeurism.
The bill passed quickly in the upper house of Parliament on Thursday; the debate in the lower house on Tuesday was longer, lasting seven hours. President Pranab Mukherjee is expected to sign it into law shortly.
"I think this is an important moment," said Vrinda Grover, a women's rights advocate and lawyer. "We have taken quite a few steps forward."
The passage of the bill comes less than three months after a New Delhi physiotherapy student was gang-raped on a moving bus and later died from her injuries. The assault drew widespread outrage and prompted protests across India, some of them violent, over the issue of women's safety.
Many Indians, including activists and politicians, demanded during the protests and their aftermath that the government do more to protect women and impose harsher sentences on men who molest them. Reported rapes in India have risen in recent years, and northern India has witnessed a series of highly publicized gang rapes.
The new law is intended to deter and punish sexual offenders, including men who stalk and harass women, and to make the police and prosecutors more responsive. The Indian judicial system has been widely criticized as lax and insensitive in dealing with crimes against women.
The law expands the definition of rape, substantially increases the punishment for sex crimes like gang rape, makes repeat offenders subject to the death penalty, and defines as crimes actions like disrobing and voyeurism. It also imposes stricter punishment for police officers who fail to properly register complaints of sexual assault.
India's democracy has often been faulted for being so unruly and its Parliament so dysfunctional that fundamental development issues like education and malnutrition are never adequately addressed. The fact that the rape bill passed both houses of Parliament speedily this week, despite the disruption of several unexpected adjournments caused by a defection of one of the governing Congress Party's crucial allies, is a sign that the voices of thousands of protesters had been heard, activists said.
"It is good that India still responds as a democracy when there is pressure from citizens," said Meenakshi Ganguly, the director of Human Rights Watch in South Asia. "The terrible attack in Delhi, and the protests that followed, ensured that both the opposition and the government cooperated in ensuring that this law was enacted."
Cabinet ministers were quick to praise the bill's passage. "The bill is significant, as it aims to protect mothers and sisters of this country," the minister of home affairs, Sushil Kumar Shinde, said Thursday in the upper house, according to the news agency Press Trust of India.
The law includes many, though not all, of the measures suggested in January by a panel led by a former chief justice, J.S. Verma. But some critics argued that in the rush to pass the bill, some major issues were left unaddressed.
"This is a step forward, but the government could have done more homework to bring about a stronger legislation," said Nirmala Sitharaman, the national spokeswoman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, the leading opposition bloc.
Some women's organizations said the law fell short of offering complete protection for women from sexual harassment. "There are so many recommendations that were rejected by the government," said Sandhya Valluripally, president of the Progressive Organization of Women, including a provision the group sought that listed child trafficking in the definition of rape.
Activists said that continued public attention and debate on the issue of gender equality were still needed. "The spectrum of change India requires is much, much broader than amendments to the criminal laws," said Ms. Grover, the lawyer. "We need to really focus on enforcement and implementation."
Sruthi Gottipati and Pamposh Raina contributed reporting from New Delhi.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.