Child rights

Some Indian states are considering the death penalty for child rapists. But will it be effective?

Activists fear such a move will worsen the problem of under-reporting.

In the past four months, at least four states have moved to, or said they intend to, introduce the death penalty for those who rape children below a certain age.

Madhya Pradesh, which was the first to announce this in November, has already passed a bill that awards capital punishment to those convicted of raping girls below the age of 12. The bill is awaiting presidential assent. Rajasthan is in the process of drawing up a similar law, and ministers from Karnataka and Haryana have also suggested that they might consider such a measure. The Shiv Sena, part of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra, has also expressed its keenness for increased punishment for such crimes.

The latest National Crime Records Bureau data, released in November, showed that 19,765 cases of child rape were registered in 2016.

In January, the rape of an eight-month-old in Delhi led to widespread outrage, and a Public Interest Litigation was filed in the Supreme Court seeking capital punishment for such rapists. Although the Centre, in that matter, told the court verbally that the “death penalty is not the answer to everything”, states are free to legislate on the issue independently.

But even as state governments and ministers increasingly call for harsher punishment in cases of child rape, much more needs to be done to ensure justice for children who have been wronged, say activists. With the focus on punishment, they ask if the underlying issues that plague trials under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, and the nitty gritties of India’s child protection system are being glossed over?

Fixing the system

“The death penalty is a low-hanging fruit to go after perpetrators,” said Swagata Raha, a legal consultant with the Centre for Child and the Law at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. “The laws are getting more penal but where are the fundamental changes to strengthen the system?”

Raha added: “Will justice be done by hanging a few people? Enough studies show that it is not a deterrent. Where are the structures and changes at the systemic level?”

In the past two years the Centre for Child and the Law has published a series of reports on the functioning of the special courts set up under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in five states – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Delhi. Though the specifics might differ, the broad patterns remain: victims often turn hostile in such trials, conviction rates are low for a variety of complex reasons, people in the system are not always well-trained and victim compensation schemes are being implemented unevenly.

“Rehabilitation for victims of sexual abuse is still not a priority for the state,” said Anant Kumar Asthana, a lawyer and juvenile justice expert. “The same government which is keen to bring death penalty for criminals goes silent when you ask that more courts be set up, appoint more judges in these courts, take care of our public prosecutors and strengthen them, simplify compensation for victims procedures, recruit more female police officers, give more resources to our police, judiciary and public prosecutors so that they could do their job more efficiently and swiftly...so the death penalty has nothing to do with ensuring children’s rights.”

(Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP).
(Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP).

Decrease in allocations

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act was introduced following increasing incidents of crimes against children. It already has a provision for perpetrators to receive life imprisonment as the maximum punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault.

The Act also states that the victim’s evidence should be recorded within 30 days of a court taking cognisance of the offence, and as far as possible the trial should be completed in a year. “In such cases there needs to be time-bound disposal in a child-friendly manner,” said Govind Beniwal, a former member of Rajasthan’s State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights. “We all know cases go on for more than a year. Justice is not limited to punishing the offender. We have to see how to support the victims, the focus should be on rehabilitation.”

But this cannot be done without adequate funding.

The allocations for child-related schemes in the Union Budget have been falling each year, and this year was no exception. These schemes constitute 3.23% of the total Budget, a slight fall since last year (3.32%) and a continuation of the decline since 2012-’13 (4.76%). Within this, the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, which covers vulnerable children, stands at around 0.05% of the total Budget this year too.

“The main cause for worry is that child protection as a focus area has not received the attention of policy makers and financial planners,” said an analysis from the non-profit CARE India of the 2017-’18 Budget. “The allocation and expenditure has hovered around only Rs 1,000 crore and in BE 2018-’19 it is Rs 1,376.93 crore, which translates to approximately Rs 29 per child per year only.”

Risk of under-reporting

Data has repeatedly shown that trying offences against children is tricky because they are usually committed by people known to them (the Centre for Child and the Law studies found those known to the victims were those accused of the crime in 70% to 80% of the judgments studied in the five states). “There is a concern that introducing the death penalty will worsen the problem of under-reporting,” said Anup Surendranath, director of the Centre on the Death Penalty at the National Law University in Delhi. “Since a lot of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by known people, victims might be more reluctant to report crimes and this could drive further under reporting.”

In 2015, a Law Commission report had recommended that the death penalty be abolished gradually except in terror-related cases. Though death sentences might be handed out, but only occasionally implemented, studies from elsewhere have shown there is not enough evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent impact on offences.

Surendranath pointed out that even the US, which is “a very death-penalty aggressive country”, stops short of prescribing it for the rapists of minors. Indonesia, which announced the measure in 2016, is one of the few states to do so.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.