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India rape sets off debate over women's rights

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NEW DELHI (AP) — India's army and navy canceled New Year's celebrations on Monday out of respect for a New Delhi student whose gang-rape and murder has set off an impassioned debate about what the nation 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 country treats its women.

"To change a society as conservative, traditional and patriarchal as ours, we will have a long haul," said Ranjana Kumari, 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.

The 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 has not been 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 ratio.

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

Politicians from across the spectrum called for 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 on Monday inaugurated 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. Gov. 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 newspapers, 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."

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights chief called Monday for fundamental change in India.

"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," said Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. "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 said in a statement.

Pillay, a South African of Indian origin, urged Indians not to give in to calls for capital punishment for rapists. "However terrible the crime, the death penalty is not the answer," she said.

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Associated Press reporters Archana Thiyagarajan and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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Follow Ravi Nessman on Twitter at twitter.com/ravinessman

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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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