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Updated Monday, December 31, 2012 at 05:39 AM

India rape sets off debate over women's rights

By RAVI NESSMAN
Associated Press

The gang-rape and killing of a New Delhi student has set off an impassioned debate about what India needs to do to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

Protesters and politicians have called for tougher rape laws, major police reforms and a transformation in the way the entire nation treats its women.

`'To change a society as conservative, traditional and patriarchal as ours, we will have a long haul," said Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Center for Social Research. `'It will take some time, but certainly there is a beginning."

The country remained in mourning Monday, two days after the 23-year-old physiotherapy student died from her internal wounds in the Singapore hospital where she had been sent for emergency treatment. Six men have been arrested and charged with murder in the Dec. 16 attack on a New Delhi bus. They face the death penalty if convicted, police said.

Out of respect for the victim, India's army and navy canceled their New Year's celebrations, as did Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress party. Hotels and clubs across the capital also said they would forego their usual parties.

`'She has become the daughter of the entire nation," said Sushma Swaraj, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

Hundreds of mourners continued their daily protests near Parliament demanding swift government action.

`'So much needs to be done to end the oppression of women," said Murarinath Kushwaha, a man whose two friends were on a hunger strike to draw attention to the issue.

Some commentators compared the rape victim, whose name was not released by police, to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation set off the Arab Spring. There was hope her tragedy could mark a turning point for gender rights in a country where women often refuse to leave their homes at night out of fear and where sex selective abortions and even female infanticide have wildly skewed the gender ratios.

`'It cannot be business as usual anymore," the Hindustan Times newspaper wrote in an editorial.

Politicians from across the spectrum called for convening a special session of Parliament to pass new laws to increase punishments for rapists - including possible chemical castration - and to set up fast-track courts to deal with rape cases within 90 days.

The government has proposed creating a public database of convicted rapists to shame them, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has set up two committees to look into what lapses led to the rape and to propose changes in the law.

The Delhi government inaugurated Monday a new helpline - 181 - for women, though it wasn't working because of glitches.

Responding to complaints that police refuse to file cases of abuse or harassment brought by women, the city force has appointed an officer to meet with women's groups monthly and crack down on the problem, New Delhi Lt.-Governor Tejendra Khanna said.

`'We have mandated that any time any lady visits a police station with a complaint, it has to be recorded on the spot," he said.

Kumari said the Delhi police commissioner sent her a message Monday asking her group to restart police sensitivity training that it had suspended due to lack of funds.

There have also been proposals to install a quota to ensure one-third of Delhi's police are women.

There also have been signs of a change in the public debate about crimes against women.

Other rapes suddenly have become front page news in Indian papers, and politicians are being heavily criticized for any remarks considered misogynistic or unsympathetic to women.

A state legislator from Rajasthan was ridiculed Monday across TV news channels after suggesting that one way to stop rapes would be to change girls' school uniforms to pants instead of skirts.

`'How can he tell us to change our clothes?" said Gureet Kaur, a student protester in the Rajasthani town of Alwar. `'Why can't girls live freely?"

Some activists have accused politicians of being so cossetted in their security bubbles that they have no idea of the daily travails people are suffering.

Kumari said the country was failing in its basic responsibility to protect its citizens. But she was heartened to see so many young men at the protests along with women.

`'I have never heard so many people who felt so deep down hurt," she said. `'It will definitely have some impact."

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Associated Press reporters Archana Thiyagarajan and Ashok Sharma contributed to this report.

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Follow Ravi Nessman at twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ravinessman


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