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Will the death penalty stop India's wave of child rape?

Tuesday, 24 April 2018 13:34 GMT

A girl holds a placard during a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, near Jammu, in Kochi, India April 15, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram

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Harsh penalties alone are not a fix. Here are a few steps we should be taking to tackle this endemic problem...

By Siddharth Chatterjee, United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya

Grotesque and barbaric is the only way to describe the rape and murder of an 8-year-old child in a country where women and girls are traditionally revered as goddesses.

There have been numerous cases of rape across India, however, the story of little Asifa, who was sedated, gang raped, tortured and murdered in Kathua, in Jammu and Kashmir, has haunted us all. This is partly due to the heinous nature of the crime and partly due to disturbing allegations that this savagery was carried out as part of a concerted plan to drive out the nomadic Muslim community which her family belongs to.

Since then, the media in India has been awash with reports of babies and girls being raped - from an 8-month-old baby girl in Indore to a 9-year-old girl in Etah, Uttar Pradesh, a 10-year-old in Chhattisgarh and a 16-year-old in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh (allegedly by a political figure). But there has been little to no action to prevent these atrocities.

Elected officials have either been shockingly silent, or have spoken out too late, and some have even shown their active support for the accused perpetrators of such crimes.

Have we become so numbed in India, that such revelations no longer shock us? Has the simple humanity of protecting our innocent and helpless children from harm, the most important duty of every adult in India, forsaken us?

Consider this. In 2016,  over 19,000 cases of rape were registered in India. In 2017, in India’s capital Delhi, an average of 5 rapes were reported every day.

In response, through an executive order and cabinet approval, the Indian government has introduced the death penalty for those found guilty of the rape of a child under the age of 12.

Globally, death sentences are coming to an end. It is my personal belief that the death penalty will have little or no effect, however heinous the crime is. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “when fighting a monster, be careful not to become a monster yourself”.

The issue that India is grappling with at present is an endemic, societal problem and no quick fixes are likely to solve it. Harsh penalties alone will not be a deterrent. As the malaise is systemic, so too should be the cure.

So here is a four-tier approach

Firstly, it is important to increase the reporting of rape and assault. Across the world rape is an underreported crime; this is all the more true in India. It is essential that women and children be educated on their rights on reporting of a violent act against them through an active social media campaign.

Secondly, it is absolutely vital that law enforcers are trained to react swiftly and with sensitivity to women and children who have been harassed, assaulted or raped. Sensitivity training and knowledge of the rights of women and children must be made mandatory for all law enforcement agencies.

Thirdly, punishments need to be exemplary and widely covered in the media. There must be a “shock and awe” campaign of zero tolerance of sex offenders and those who kill and violate women and children. Fast track courts must ensure that the law is surgical and unrelenting in pursuing and ensuring that such offenders face the full force of justice, regardless of their rank and station.

Finally, a nationwide campaign is needed to ignite values and traditions that respect and nurture women and children. This can only be borne out of consensus in society. Awareness amongst men of the scope of this issue is critical. Men who turn a blind eye to such brutal acts in their own neighbourhoods, communities and families are just as culpable as those who perpetrate these acts. Action from courts and police will not suffice if the community remains defiantly opposed to change.

So the biggest question remains: how exactly to engage the entire populace to initiate a change in mindset? How can a national conversation on this subject be leveraged into national action?

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