Death penalty won’t solve problem

In November last year, the rape of a Maulana Azad Medical College student in broad daylight focused attention on how unsafe Delhi had become for women. A public furor broke out and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani declared that convicted rapists should be given the death sentence. In popular perception, death for rapists — failing which, castration — seems to be the most fitting punishment. Only extreme measures can serve as an effective deterrent, goes the argument.

The existing punishment under section 376 of the Indian Penal Code is a maximum of 10 years in jail. Even the National Commission of Women — which has asked for nine areas of review in legislation governing rape — recommends the death penalty for persons convicted of rape.

But many women’s groups aren’t sure this is the solution. “It’s the certainty of conviction that is a deterrent,” says Indira Jaising of the Lawyer’s Collective. As things stand, less than 20 percent of all reported rapes end up in convictions and most rapists can be pretty sure that they’ll get away.

There’s another concern. If rape becomes punishable by death wouldn’t rapists end up murdering their victims, rather than leaving a trail of evidence? “I think you would see a lot more women being killed off,” says Leena Menghaney, another lawyer.

Moreover, adds Prabha Nagaraja of TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues), judges would become even more hesitant to convict if they were aware that their sentence could mean death for the rapist. As it is there is a tendency to let rapists off with light sentences, says Jaising.

Finally, says Menghaney, what’s the point of talking about harsher penalties when the existing definition of rape by the law is flawed and limited? Under the existing definition, rape is limited to penile-vaginal penetration and does not include anal or oral penetration or the rape of boys and men. These crimes are covered under different sections that carry far lighter sentences.

So, what’s the way out? Can civil society offer an effective deterrence to would-be rapists?

Zero tolerance for one. “The police, the courts, families, and the community at large must work together to ensure that not only are culprits booked but also that they provide supportive services to the victim,” says a senior bureaucrat.

Adds Menghaney: “Too many women don’t even report the crime because the system is so unfriendly.”

In the final analysis, it’s speedier convictions rather than harsher sentencing that could actually turn things around for Delhi’s vulnerable women.