Why I don’t support death penalty for child rapists: A survivor
A child sexual abuse survivor tells why capital punishment for child rapists could be counterproductive to justiceanalysis Updated: Apr 25, 2018 19:42 IST
A couple of months back in Delhi, as I fielded questions after the screening of The Little Girls We Were...And The Women We Are, a film on child sexual abuse, someone in the audience asked me what I would like to do to the person who abused me. While a lot of people ask me about the impact of abuse, I had never been put in a position to decide the fate of my abuser. He was seeking to understand something deeper: Didn’t I want vengeance?
The recent spate of chilling cases of rape and murder of children has led to a growing demand for death penalty from angry sections of society.
Such demands are not only counterproductive, but also have limited scope. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act doesn’t differentiate between genders, but according to a 2007 government survey, more than half the child respondents who reported having faced sexual abuse were boys.
How many of these angry people have tried to understand the repercussions of the death penalty?
At four, a relative started sexually abusing me. At eight, after a friend heard me talk about my relative’s penis size, my mother called me in for ‘questioning’. I was so terrified, I thought I would vomit my heart out. Why? Because fear, guilt, self-blame and shame are common emotions that children who have been sexually abused suffer from. I managed a meek “yes” when she asked whether the family member in question had been touching my vagina, and her response, like that of so many parents when confronted with child sexual abuse by a trusted adult in the family, was to silence me. “Don’t tell your father, or he will be very angry,” she said. I never discussed it again, and the abuse continued well into my teens.
If I knew that my relative would be put to death for what he had done, would I have answered my mother at all? Imagine living your whole life with not just the shame of being abused, but also the guilt of having caused someone’s death. This is my primary reason for not supporting the death penalty for sexual abusers of minors.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, almost 95% of sexual crimes against children are by people known to the child. Child sexual abuse is not a one-time incident. Apart from me, my relative abused my cousins too, and the family was aware. At 19, when I told my elders that I wanted to file a case against my abuser, they refused to support me. Having neither been to a police station before, nor being financially independent, I felt isolated. Would my case hold in court if the elders claimed that I was lying? That’s how the man who abused my cousins and me went scot-free.
With the death penalty as punishment for abuse, instances of reporting will plunge, victims will turn hostile owing to familial pressure and the judicial process of appeals and increased weightage on evidence — which rightly mark all death penalty cases — will prolong the case for years, adding to the survivor’s trauma. As fewer children speak up, abusers will get more emboldened. The cycle of abuse will continue.
So, to answer the question the audience member posed: yes, I want retribution. But the death penalty will not offer that. What is needed is an environment which encourages children to report sexual abuse, an efficient criminal judicial system and sensitised police officers.
Adults need to learn how to respond to children in distress. Make body safety and sexual health part of school curriculum. Shift the shame from the victim to the abuser, so that children feel more comfortable disclosing abuse. Currently, conviction rates under POCSO are abysmal, and the backlog of cases is immense. The law provides for special courts, educators, translators, and a child-friendly court environment, where the survivor is not exposed to the accused, but the implementation of all this is lacking. At the same time, methods of investigation and evidence gathering need to be improved.
As a society, we have every right to feel outraged when a child, whatever their gender, is violated. But laws need to be reformative, not vengeful.
Ishita Manek co-runs Rubaroo, a Mumbai-based organisation which focuses on prevention of child sexual abuse
The views expressed are personal
(The writer has offered Hindustan Times this piece with her name)