The death penalty is a quick fix unlikely to deter monsters in our society
Boys must be sensitised against sexism and taught to stand up against others who harm or harass women.analysis Updated: May 07, 2018 18:55 IST
I write this piece wearing many hats. I am, in ascending order of priority, a lawyer, a woman and a mother of two teenage daughters. My girls seethe with indignation at reports on the rape of minor girls. They want answers, not least from their mother who has spent much of her life in the courts. The truth is I have none. As a society, we have failed our women. That is one half of us.
When the December 16 gang rape in Delhi happened, we thought enough was enough. But the huge outpourings of outrage, the public protests that culminated in the Justice Verma Committee Report and the enhanced punishment seem to make little difference to the many monsters around us, ‘godmen’ among them.The challenge extends well beyond criminals. It is a whole mindset, a very rotten one that needs radical reform. Recently, at an awards function in the name of the December 16, 2012 braveheart , a former DGP described her mother as having “a very, very nice physique”, indicative of the gang rape survivor’s own beauty that “attracted the attention of miscreants”. If this is how our protectors and guardians of the law think, we can safely expect only much worse from others. Talking of protectors and holders of public trust, spiritual sanctuaries have turned out to be the safest havens for sexual crime as scandals tumble out of ashrams, churches and recently, a madrasa.
While death penalty is controversial, the fact is that capital punishment remains on our statute books for the most abhorrent of crimes and already applies to a situation where the rape victim dies or is reduced to a vegetative state. Is there really a debate about whether the rape of a child under 12 falls within the category of most abhorrent crimes? Raping a little girl lies at the very depths of depravity known to living beings. It is unfair to animals to call the perpetrator animal-like or beastly, because animals do not treat their own species with the cruelty human beings are capable of. Rape of a minor must be recognised among the worst of crimes and the new ordinance does that. But that said, providing death penalty as one of the possible punishments for raping girl under 12 (the perpetrator will mostly still get life imprisonment ) is a quick fix that is unlikely to generate the desired deterrence. Since most sexual crimes against minors take place in the safe confines of a home, often by a relative, the victim is likely to be silenced against complaining, particularly because the consequences can be death for the offender. The girl herself might find the possible consequences hard to deal with. In any case, death sentences are rarely executed in India. Even in the most infamous of terror cases, matters have stretched on for decades before the sentence is carried out, if at all. The punishment is therefore unlikely to achieve deterrence.
The social reality is that sexual crimes are likely to be on the rise rather than on the ebb. In times when women stayed cloistered at home, the scope for sexual crimes remained largely confined to the home. Women have now stepped out into the spaces once monopolised by men. They travel long distances to school, to college and to workplaces where they share space with men, compete with them and threaten their positions. Men tend to respond by using the easiest tools at their disposal – physical or sexual power. The grim reality is that as women get ahead, they must brace themselves for more crimes, not less. While the criminal justice system desperately needs to get into shape with many more, no-nonsense women judges and a quick process, start to finish, it is not the solution.
What is the answer then? The approach has to be prophylactic. If we can’t change the mindset of grown men, we can certainly catch them young. Ideally that must begin at home. Children are taught math and science in school but how about gender sensitisation as a compulsory subject, both in theory and practice? This is as important a life skill as any other and needs to be part of the education curriculum from kindergarten to college. Boys must be sensitised against sexism and taught to stand up against others who harm or harass women. Girls must be taught self-defence in school- it is as important to their survival as a midday meal. We can take a few lessons from Kenya that has brought rapes down by teaching “positive masculinity” and self- defence in schools.
During the protests in the aftermath of Kathua, a young woman held up a placard which read: “Beta padhao, use rakshas banne se bachao (Educate your boys, save them from turning into monsters!). Let’s say that again.
Madhavi Goradia Divan is an advocate, Supreme Court of India
The views expressed are personal