Reeling from protests across the country demanding justice for victims after the recent spate of sexual assaults, Indian authorities are under pressure to respond. One step the government has decided to adopt is a sex offenders’ database, which will store the profile and personal details of convicted offenders and those accused of such offenses. Children accused of such crimes may also be included in the database.
For several years, some senior government ministers have been calling for mandatory registration of sex offenders. It reflects public concern that children and women are at grave risk of sexual abuse by strangers who are repeat offenders.
But this concern is not borne out by facts.
According to 2016 government data, out of 38,947 cases of reported rapes in India, the accused was known to the victim in almost 95% of the cases. In nearly 4,000 cases, the accused was a close family member.
Rape is already under-reported in India largely because of social stigma, victim-blaming, poor response by the criminal justice system, and lack of any national victim and witness protection law. This makes rape survivors highly vulnerable to pressure to forego reporting the assault from the accused as well as the police. Children are even more vulnerable due to pressure from family and society.
The fact that the offenders – often relatives or family friends – will be recorded in a national database for all time may actually lead to a decrease in reporting of such crimes. Even if the database is not public, the absence of laws to protect privacy and on data protection in India will raise further concerns.
Moreover, studies by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union show that sex offender registries in the United States have done more harm than good. Instead of crime prevention, they lead to harassment, ostracism, and violence against former offenders, especially children, and impede their rehabilitation.
The Indian government should instead better enforce existing laws and protection measures. It can start by ensuring that police officers, judicial officials, and medical professionals are sensitized on the proper handling of sexual violence cases – and holding them to account when they don’t.
This article first appeared on Human Rights Watch.