India's lower house on Tuesday approved a bill toughening punishments for rapists and other sexual offenders that was introduced following the fatal gang-rape of a student that sparked national outrage.
Members of the decision-making lower house of parliament gave their assent, following a seven-hour debate, to the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill which also contains new penalties for stalking, groping, voyeurism and acid attacks.
The legislation, which must now be approved by the nominated upper house, provides for a minimum 20-year prison sentence for gang-rape, that can be extended to life in jail.
It also provides for the death sentence if a rape victim dies or is left in a vegetative state.
"This is just a first step in a journey of 1,000 miles," said Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a woman MP from the regional Shiromani Akali Dal party, in the final moments of the debate.
Under the existing law governing sexual offences, a rapist faces seven to 10 years in jail.
The bill's approval by the lower house came four days after a 39-year-old Swiss cyclist was gang-raped in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in an attack observers said underscored risks women face in the country of 1.2 billion people.
It also came on the day a female British tourist suffered leg injuries when she jumped out of a hotel window in fear of being sexually assaulted in the Indian city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal.
A government-appointed panel in January recommended stiffer laws after a 23-year-old student was savagely gang-raped by six drunken men and attacked with an iron bar on a bus on December 16. She died nearly two weeks later of massive internal injuries.
Parliamentarians across party lines Tuesday spoke about the perils women face in India.
"We are today facing an epidemic in the country after the horrific incident of December 16 and it is my shameful admission that there has been 250 rapes since then," said opposition Biju Janata Dal party MP Pinaki Misra during the debate.
Supriya Sule of the Congress-led coalition government said the new measures were for the "woman at the bottom of the pyramid who cannot scream out, reach out (for help)".
According to government crime statistics, one woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, but most incidents go unreported, mainly due to victims' fears of being stigmatised in the sexually conservative nation.
Four of the suspects are on trial over the murder of the physiotherapy student in December in a specially set up fast-track court. They are facing charges of abduction, gang-rape and murder.
A fifth suspect, Ram Singh, was found dead in his prison cell on March 11. Police suspect the man hanged himself.
The sixth accused is a minor and is standing trial in a juvenile court.