India’s Cabinet has passed an executive order to make the rape of a girl under 12 punishable by the death penalty as national outrage grows over sexual violence in the country.
The order — known as an ordinance — was approved Saturday at a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development.
The change in the law will only become permanent once it is approved by India’s Parliament, which is currently in recess. It goes into effect once it’s signed by the President, considered a formality, but it will lapse after six months if Parliament doesn’t ratify it.
The executive order also increased the minimum punishment for female rape from seven years in prison to 10 years, extendable up to life imprisonment, and introduced measures to speed up court proceedings in rape cases. Forensic rape kits will be provided to police stations and hospitals, and specialist labs will be set up exclusively to handle rape cases, the ministry said.
Modi has come under increasing pressure to act following a string of particularly brutal rape cases that have shocked the nation. Less than three months ago, his government argued against a call in the Supreme Court to introduce the death penalty for child rape.
Large protests were held last weekend in response to the alleged gang rape and killing of an 8-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu and Kashmir state. Police have arrested eight suspects in connection with her death, all of whom are Hindu. Investigators allege the men plotted the girl’s abduction as a means of scaring predominately Muslim nomads into leaving the region.
As public outrage grew, two senior members of Modi’s party who had participated in the protests in support of the accused were forced to resign amid accusations of political interference and religious discrimination.
That case, along with rape accusations against a ruling party lawmaker in the state of Uttar Pradesh, has put pressure on Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. The lawmaker, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, denies the allegations that involve a teenage girl.
The head of the Delhi Commission for Women, Swati Maliwal, began a hunger strike on April 13 to push for stricter laws for rape in India, including the death penalty.
She welcomed news of the new ordinance via Twitter but said her protest was not over.
“I congratulate people of this country for this victory,” she said. “Very few protests have achieved so much in such less time. But until something concrete happens, I will not give up. Until a system is there which ensures safety for the last girl, I won’t give up.”
Following outcry over the 2012 gang rape and death of 23-year-old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh, the central government passed legislative reforms, commonly known as the Nirbhaya Act. The act saw increased penalties for sexual violence, including extending the length of prison sentences and introducing the death penalty in certain cases.
However, incidents of sexual violence continue to shock the country. Around 100 sexual assaults are reported to police in India every day, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There were nearly 39,000 alleged attacks in 2016, an increase of 12% over the previous year.
Public outrage has threatened to engulf Modi, who will seek re-election next year, as the demonstrations transform into a conduit for growing anger over the country’s treatment of women and minority groups.
After several days in which he failed to address the issue publicly, Modi finally broke his silence during an April 13 speech in Delhi, promising justice for “our daughters.” However, critics accused him of doing too little, too late.
The furor also threatened to overshadow Modi’s visit this week to Britain. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside Downing Street and the UK Parliament waving placards reading “go home Modi” and “hang the rapists” as he prepared to meet with UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
Addressing selected members of the Indian diaspora in London, Modi called on society to do more while urging against politicizing the issue.
“A rape is a rape. How can we tolerate this torture with our daughters? You are always questioning your daughters, why don’t you ask the same questions to your sons? I believe this is the evil of not just the individual but also of the society,” he said.