Nearly seven years after the brutal gangrape and murder of a paramedical student in Delhi, who came to be known as ‘Nirbhaya’, the four convicts of the case were hanged early this morning despite last minute attempts to stall the execution.
There was rising chorus against the death penalty against the convicts ever since the crime took place in Delhi in December 2012. The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) report of 2018 says that nearly 3.27 lakh cases of crime against women were reported across the country, out of which 1.3 lakh were of sexual harassment.
In most cases, including the Nirbhaya case, death penalty is seen as an ultimate solution or retributive act to deter crimes against women and children. However, the question that arises here is that can death penalty alone put an end to violence against women and children? Justice Verma Committee, while recommending a 20 year imprisonment for rape and murder, and life for gang rape, refrained from suggesting death penalty as a solution to sexual crimes. Further, data and research studies from across the globe reveal that death penalty does not act as a deterrent to crimes against women and children, especially sexual crimes.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) was quick enough to share its displeasure about the execution this morning, saying that the execution of the perpetrators was an “affront to rule of law and does not improve access to justice for women. It then urged the Government of India to abolish death penalty and introduce “systematic changes” to ensure the safety of women and children.
Breakthrough, as an organization committed to making violence against women and girls unacceptable, strongly believes that death penalty is inadequate and ineffective in addressing the menace of crimes, particularly those involving sexual violence. The recent cases reported from Badaun, Unnao and several other parts of the country point to the vicious presence of ‘power and privilege’ as major barriers that deprive survivors of sexual crimes timely and speedy justice. For this to end, processes of investigation need to be strengthened, reporting of crimes against women and children should be streamlined and above all, the investigating agencies and judiciary need to be sensitized to handle cases involving violence against women and children, especially sexual crimes. Despite one-time punishments and highly publicised executions such as in case of Nirbhaya, women and girls feel the continuous threat of facing violence mentally, physically, emotionally and verbally in public spaces.
Death penalty, hence, is far from addressing the real issue and shifts away the focus from women and children who are subjected to violence in their daily lives. This is all the more true in child sexual abuse cases where the perpetrator is often a family member of the survivor/victim. The 2018 NCRB report 2018 shows that 94.6% of all cases reported under rape with penetrative sexual assault against children were committed by people known to them. It is therefore important for the government and judiciary to identify the systemic flaws and institutional barriers to bring about timely and effective delivery of justice for the survivors, without solely relying on death penalty as short-term solutions.
While India seeks to achieve greater economic stability and prosperity, it must prioritise safety of women who contribute significantly to national economic growth. The Global Gender Gap report estimated the women workforce in the country fell to 18% in 2019 from 37% in 2006. Hence, women’s safety in all the spaces, home, public and work, she occupies will be crucial to catapult India to a developed economy not just in terms of wealth but in terms of how it treats its women and girls.
Author is the Director of Global Advocacy, Breakthrough an organization seeking to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable