The December 2012 gang rape, torture and murder of a 23-year-old Delhi student – given the pseudonym Nirbhaya or 'one without fear' – was inhuman and the rapists should be punished. The overwhelming public anger about the case and her family’s desire for the harshest penalty is understandable. They were devastated and we should all show great sympathy.
Yet despite the awfulness of this crime, ActionAid does not support the death penalty. We believe it violates two fundamental human rights, the right to life and the right not to be tortured or subject to any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. More practically it perpetuates cycles of violence and fails to address the root causes of violence against women in India.
Concerns about the death penalty were also raised by the Verma Commission, set up by the government of India in the aftermath of the demonstrations that followed Nirbhaya’s death.
"In order for her death not to be in vain we must be prepared to do all that it takes to be a less unjust and brutal society. Our absolute and unflinching commitment to Nirbhaya must be to find ways of making sure that we do not encourage uncivilised and brutish ideas, such as death penalty. Our system of punishment must, above all, reflect those values and commitment."
My colleagues in ActionAid India tell me that too often women in India are viewed as commodities, valued mainly for their chastity and virginity. They point out that there are obvious male attitudinal links that than can be made when comparing the honour killings that routinely take place in the state of Haryana (only a few miles from Delhi) where the penalty for marrying the man of your choice is death, and the Delhi rape case.
There are also links to be made with domestic violence, which is all but ignored by India’s justice system. Most violence against women is carried out in their own homes.
Domestic violence is rampant, marital rape is still unrecognised and millions of girls are killed before they are born. India’s 2011 census revealed the highest rate of female infanticide since the nation’s independence in 1947. This has to stop.
Police and many lawyers lack sensitivity
The dismissive attitude and lack of sensitivity that continues to persist among police personnel and endlessly delayed trials and humiliation at the hands of police, lawyers and society is an immense hindrance to women seeking justice.
It is estimated that a woman is raped every 20 seconds in India although most rapes are never reported with victims fearing humiliation and degrading treatment by the police - or social stigma.
India’s National Crime Records Bureau data shows that while reported rape cases have risen from 16,075 in 2001 to 24,923 in 2012, the rates of conviction have dipped from 41% to 24% in the corresponding period. At the same time there are more than 23,000 rape cases alone pending before the high courts, according to the law ministry.
Fortunately prosecution in the bus rape case happened quickly, galvanised by public outrage and by pressure from the women’s movement in India. ActionAid India argues that this sense of urgency should become a benchmark for other cases.
ActionAid India also states that equal importance should be given to each and every case that is registered, especially of those from marginalised communities. It is important to understand and factor in the multiple vulnerabilities of survivors such as Dalits, minorities, disabled women and children.
The Indian police force has to be better trained to deal with survivors of sexual violence and there is a need to develop support systems for survivors.
And ultimately the most effective way to tackle rape and other forms of violence in India is to combat an embedded culture of male dominance and power that routinely uses violence as a means to keep women under control.
Photo: @Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg/ActionAid