Government defends ordinance, promises debate as women protest

New Delhi, Feb 4 (IANS) As women's groups decided to intensify their protest, the government Monday defended its ordinance on enhancing punishment for sexual crimes and said it was open to public suggestions as parliament would debate the issue.

"The ordinance is only the starting point of a legislative process. I appeal to everyone to allow the process to be completed in the budget session (of parliament)," Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said at a news conference here.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, was given assent to Sunday by President Pranab Mukherjee. The government says it is largely based on the recommendations of the Justice J.S. Verma Committee, set up by the government Dec 23, 2012, following nationa wide outrage over the gruesome gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman Dec 16.

Women's groups, which have termed the ordinance a "big joke", held a protest at Jantar Mantar here.

"This ordinance is an eyewash. It has diluted the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee. We want a bill based on the panel's suggestions," said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women Association (AIPWA).

Women activists urged President Mukherjee Saturday not to sign the ordinance, saying it lacks teeth to fight sexual crimes against women.

The ordinance has to be passed by parliament within six months to be made into law.

Chidambaram said the government would welcome suggestions from the public to replace the ordinance with a bill in parliament.

He said that discussions would be held with political parties.

"These consultations will afford ample opportunity to make changes in the ordinance. The bill passed by parliament will reflect the broadest possible consensus on the imperative and urgent need to have an effective law to protect women and to punish crimes against women," he said.

However, the finance minister agreed there were "difficult issues" arising out of the suggestions made by the panel.

Chidambaram said the government has not included some clauses recommended by the Justice Verma Committee but had not rejected anything.

"It is not right to say the government has rejected recommendations of the Verma Committee. We have been faithful to the Justice Verma panel recommendations," he said.

"Some clauses like AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), marital rape and lowering the age of juveniles need more discussions," he said.

He called on all political parties to support the government in getting the bill passed.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari said: "If there are objections, the government will look into them with a positive framework and take into consideration whatever is necessary."

According to some of the provisions of the ordinance, gang rape is punishable with imprisonment for 20 years or up to life.

The government has recommended death in cases where the victim dies due to injury caused by the rape or leaves the victim in a vegetative state.

Sexual harassment is punishable with imprisonment of up to five years. This includes forcibly showing porn, making sexually coloured remarks, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature, contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures, and demand or request for sexual favours are all punishable under the ordinance.

Voyeurism and stalking are punishable with imprisonment up to three years.

According to its provisions, marital rape is not an offence if the wife is over 16 and is not judicially separated.

Krishnan said women's groups will carry out a signature campaign against the ordinance and in favour of implementing the Verma Committee's recommendations.

They will gather Feb 21 at Jantar Mantar, the day the budget session of parliament starts, to hold a vigil as the house debates the bill.

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