Expressing deep sadness at the death of a 23-year-old woman whose gang-rape in India has sparked nationwide protests there, the top United Nations human rights official today called for “urgent and rational debate” aimed at ending violence against women in the country.
“What is needed is a new public consciousness and more effective and sensitive enforcement of the law in the interests of women,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, amidst media reports that India remained in mourning two days after the woman, a physiotherapy student whose name has not been publicly released, died in a Singapore hospital of internal injuries inflicted by her attackers.
“The public is demanding a transformation in systems that discriminate against women to a culture that respects the dignity of women in law and practice,” she noted, according to a news release from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva.
The woman was reportedly attacked after boarding a bus in the Indian capital of New Delhi with her boyfriend, who was also assaulted and injured, but survived. Six men have been charged with both her rape and murder, and could face the death penalty if convicted.
For her part, Ms. Pillay cautioned against such a response, which she noted was among the demands amid the “escalating protests” that reports say are demanding immediate government action.
“However terrible the crime, the death penalty is not the answer,” Ms. Pillay said, as OHCHR noted she called for “urgent and rational debate on comprehensive measures to address such crimes.”
The UN official highlighted that the attack was the latest in a series of rape cases, a fact reflected in statistics showing that reported rapes increased by 25 per cent from 2006 to 2011.
Ms. Pillay also pointed out that attacks are occurring against women of all social classes. While the 23-year-old New Delhi victim was reportedly from India’s rising urban class, Ms. Pillay cited the gang-rape in October of a 16-year-old girl of the Dalit designation – a grouping traditionally regarded as ‘untouchable’ even though untouchability is prohibited under India’s Constitution.
Following that attack in north India’s Haryana state, the girl committed suicide by self-immolation, Ms. Pillay noted, as she went on to describe Haryana as a place from where “an alarming level of sexual violence has been reported.”
“This is a national problem, affecting women of all classes and castes, and will require national solutions,” Ms. Pillay said. She also expressed serious concern about the number of rape incidents of children and called for “accelerated actions to address this,” OHCHR said.
The High Commissioner said she joined Indians in “all walks of life in condemning” the attack on the New Delhi student. She also expressed confidence that India could emerge reformed in the wake of this “terrible crime.”
“Let us hope that 2013 will be the year the tide is turned on violence against women in India and all women can walk free without fear,” she said, adding that “India has shown through its social reform movements of the past that it can rid itself of a scourge like rape.”
Ms. Pillay welcomed the Indian Government’s announcement it would establish a Commission of Inquiry into public safety of women in New Delhi and a judicial panel to review India’s legislative framework on violence against women.
She also observed that India had, in 2012, passed landmark legislation on the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences.
“Now is the time to strengthen India’s legal regime against rape,” Ms. Pillay said. “I encourage the Indian Government to consult widely with civil society and to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women to visit the country to assist in this process.”
Special Rapporteurs are independent UN experts who serve as unpaid appointees of the 47-nation Human Rights Council in Geneva, and are tasked to investigate and report back on issues related to their particular mandate.
Ms. Pillay said OHCHR also stood “ready to support the Indian Government and the people of India during this difficult period.”
“I am particularly heartened by the ground swell of energy of the young women and men on the streets of India and their resolve to turn the tide,” she added.
In its focus on India, the OHCHR-supported Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recommended in February 2007 that the country should “widen the definition of rape in its Penal Code to reflect the realities of sexual abuse experienced by women and to remove the exception for marital rape from the definition of rape.”
The Committee also recommended the Government “consult widely with women’s groups in its process of reform of laws and procedures relating to rape and sexual abuse.”
Made up of 23 independent experts on women’s rights from around the world, CEDAW monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which the UN General Assembly adopted in 1979, and is often described as a bill of rights for women.