Debating the Death Penalty for Raping Young Girls in India

Debating the Death Penalty for Raping Young Girls in India
Credit: Shuriah Niazi

What you need to know

In reaction to headline grabbing cases and alarming statistics the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is on the verge of introducing the death sentence for sexual assaults of young girls.

India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) holds the sad distinction of accounting for one in six of the reported rape cases in India.

Cases involving underage girls have seized headlines in the last few months, leading the the local government to take the drastic measure of introducing execution by hanging as a punishment for some perpetrators, putting he state out of step with the rest of the country.

MP is the national leader when it comes to rape, with 4,882 cases registered in MP in 2016, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. MP also has the dubious distinction of hosting the highest number of rapes involving underage girls — 2,479 victims were under the age of 18. It also ranked highest for reported cases of rape in 2015. To put those figures in perspective, there were 13 reported cases of women or girls being raped in MP every day last year.

Protest_against_rapes_in_MP1
Credit: Shuriah Niazi
About 150 people march in a silent protest against the threat of rape in Madhya Pradesh on Dec. 2.

Facing flak for this alarming record and with assembly elections in the state due next year, the MP government on Dec. 4 passed a bill awarding the death sentence to those guilty of raping or gang-raping girls aged 12 or below in the state. The bill requires the signature of India’s President Ram Nath Kovind, after which those found guilty will be hanged.

In an address to the state assembly, MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said: "By introducing harsher punishments we can effectively check crimes against women. Those who rape girls below 12 years do not have the right to live. Therefore, the death sentence has been prescribed for [those found guilty]."

Baleful statistics

In 2016, a total of 28,947 rape cases were reported all over India, a rate of 79 per day. Lawyer Akshay Shrivastava in MP’s Indore district said in an interview: “The truth is that the reported incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. Large numbers of rape incidents are not even reported because rape carries a huge stigma for the victim – who fear social humiliation and disgrace if they report. Perpetrators think they can get away [with it] and this emboldens them.”

The charity Rape Crisis UK reports that there are 11 rapes or attempted of both men and women reported every hour in the UK, which has just one-twentieth of the population, indicating the potential depth of the non-reporting problem in India.

MP’s Director General of Police Rishi Kumar Shukla told reporters that the headline number does not in fact mean that women are unsafe. Instead, it suggests that more have come forward to report crimes and fight for their rights. The police have promptly lodged their complaints, he said, leading MP to appear unusually dangerous for women.

India's legal landscape

India enacted stringent rape laws following nationwide protests in the wake of the infamous gang-rape and murder of a girl in Delhi in December 2012. According to the amended law, a rape convict can be sentenced to imprisonment for not less than 14 years, and the imprisonment can be extended until his or her death.

At present this is the punishment for rape all over India. However, there is as yet no provision of death for rape elsewhere in the country. India does enforce the death penalty for offenses including murder, waging war against the nation (treason) or for terrorism-related offenses. Neighboring Bangladesh, China and Pakistan all allow the death penalty for rape.

MP_State_Assembly
Credit: Shuriah Niazi
The Madhya Pradesh State Assembly, which unanimously passed the bill.

In 1980, India’s Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment can be exacted only in cases where the crime is of a particularly heinous nature and where there are no mitigating factors. There have been attempts to move towards ending capital punishment, notably via the Law Commission of India, which in August 2015 suggested that such sentences by reserved solely for sedition and terrorism-related offenses, but the government in Delhi declined to act on its recommendation. Abolition of death sentence has also been debated at a national level in the past with those opposing it maintaining it is arbitrary and has no proven effect in deterring criminals.

According to lawyer Siddharth Gupta, because a girl hits puberty around the age of 12, the general supposition is that raping a girl before she is pubescent is worse. This could be the reason why the government has only proposed capital punishment for raping girls 12 or below. There is not as much outrage over such incidents when they involve boys. Possibly for this reason, boys have not been included in the rape bill. Legal discrimination between the sexes is not unusual in India, where it remains impossible for a women to be prosecuted for sexual harassment or for adultery.

Though politicians in the opposition Congress party supported the bill out of political necessity so as to avoid being labeled anti-female, some of MP's Members of the Legislative Assembly have suggested that the prospect of the death penalty may drive rapists to kill their victims in order to eliminate the prime witness.

Mehran Khan, a criminal lawyer in the state capital, Bhopal, added that the law might cause fewer such rapes to be reported in the first place. "In a large number of rape incidents, the perpetrator is a relative, friend, neighbor or someone known to the victim and her family," he said. "In cases of girls below 12, older relatives decide whether to report the matter to the police or not and in many cases, they would choose not to as they would not like to send a known person to the gallows.”

People in MP have by and large welcomed the news, though some appear skeptical as to whether the ultimate punishment will make much difference. Payal Khare, a teacher at Bhopal’s Primeway Public School, said: “The prevalence of sexual violence against women in the state is really worrying. We don’t feel safe even in the state capital. Imagine the condition of girls and women in rural areas."

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Editor: TNL Staff


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