Women's Rights Bill in Parliament
Parliament house in New Delhi. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia.
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In an unprecedented move Congress Party MP, Dr. Shashi Tharoor has proposed a new Bill to the Lok Sabha on Friday, December 28, 2018 in this ongoing winter session. The Bill titled Women’s Sexual, Reproductive and Menstrual Rights Bill 2018 recommended more freedom for women with respect to their “inherent right to their sexual and reproductive choices.”

Key proposals on the Bill

Dr. Tharoor explained the importance of the Bill while introducing it in the Lok Sabha stating, “the existing laws fail to recognise ‘woman’ as an individual capable of making her own choices, specifically her sexual choices as a wife and her reproductive choices when pregnant.” The Bill thus advocates certain rights those that are capable of helping women to realise their rights over their physical, mental and sexual health and would also give women freedom of choices. The Bill highlights some key areas such as marital rape and medical termination of pregnancies issues on which women in our country have been suffering ignominiously and have been denied proper help both by the law and governmental agencies. The main focus was on:

  • Deletion of Exception 2 to Section 375 of Indian Penal Code that states sex between husband and wife for all purposes cannot be construed as rape if the wife is above 15 years of age, a regressive clause that fail to protect victims of marital rape.  
  • Addition of few words to Explanation 2 of Section 375 of Indian Penal Code such as “the women’s ethnicity, religion, caste, education, profession, clothing preference, entertainment preference, social circle, personal opinion, past sexual conduct or any other related grounds shall not be a reason to presume her consent to the sexual activity.”
  • Changing the name of the Act, Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971 to Legal Termination of Pregnancy Act.
  • The Bill advocates removal of any ambiguities so that medical practitioners in rural areas especially do not feel unsafe because of Section 312 of the Indian Penal Code that penalizes anyone, even the mother herself, for voluntarily terminating pregnancies.
  • Several amendments were discussed in the Bill related to abortion rights such as until the 12th week of pregnancy women be given absolute right to terminate if they so wish.
  • Conditional termination of pregnancy should be granted to women until 20th week of pregnancy if a certified Registered Medical Practitioner opines that continuation of pregnancy could result in life risk of expectant mother, cause grave injury to her physical or mental health or if there is a substantial amount of risk that lead to the physical, mental or genetic abnormality of the foetus.
  • The Bill also allows limited right of abortion up to 24th week of pregnancy since around 22-24th week a foetus becomes viable, that is, a foetus can survive outside the womb and thus, through this clause foetus’s right to survival was also kept in mind.
  • An amendment to Right to Education Act was also suggested in this Bill which should make it mandatory for free distribution of sanitary napkins to girl students in schools and colleges so that female health is not compromised.
  • Further, the Bill also proposes that every public institutions should ensure adequate supply, storage and distribution of sanitary products to be given free of costs.

Impact of the new Bill

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The Bill  is laudable in its effort that it focuses on important issues such as women’s health and their rights over their life. It is necessary for a welfare state to provide not only basic amenities but it should also ensure that the citizens are provided with other relevant services such as proper healthcare, education, training, jobs and support towards their cultural development. Our Constitution has mandated the government to provide for such services and also enshrined within Article 21 the principles of living with dignity, that is considered as one of our fundamental rights.

This Bill will empower women by ensuring their physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing as well as cater to their sexual health while making sure that adequate measures are taken to protect and support women of modern India. This is a first step towards realizing women’s rights and respecting their choices regarding their health, their lives, and their sexual interests. It is indeed a bold step towards accepting women’s equality not just as a principle under the aegis of Article 14 of our Constitution but ensuring correct measures being taken in realising those principles of equality, dignity and freedom.After hundreds of years of oppression Indian women are finally being recognised for their empowering roles in society, their hard work and also there seems to be a political will to support women to create their own identities instead of being tied to archaic patriarchal notions of women’s place in society. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill categorically support the same principle where it is mentioned, “the autonomy of the woman must be rightfully restored to her by granting her the agency over her sexual and reproductive rights. Women have been made vulnerable by the social construct of patriarchy, leading to their exclusion in every other social space. Unless we account for these inequalities and deconstruct patriarchal notions, we will fail in our constitutional mandate to ensure everyone’s right to access justice.”

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