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Protests in Kolkata, India, 2014 © arindambanerjee

Why the Nirbhaya Verdict Will Not Deter Rape in India

Capital punishment is not a deterrent for India’s rape culture.

In May, India waited with bated breath for the verdict on one of the most brutal and horrifying cases in the nation’s recent history: the gang rape that led to the death of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey, who earned the moniker “Nirbhaya” (fearless). While the outcome was what most people expected — the Supreme Court of India upheld the death sentence for the four accused — what raised a debate was the way the court approached the verdict. In sentencing the perpetrators to death by hanging, the judges called Jyoti Singh’s case “rarest of the rare,” and hoped that the verdict would speed up the process of justice for other rape victims and survivors.

Jyoti Singh and her family got justice after five years in an extremely rusty Indian judicial system that has more cases to solve than lawyers to solve them. But has her verdict really changed things in India? A few days after the verdict, a 20-year-old woman was gang raped in Rohtak, in the northern Indian state of Haryana; her head was smashed to pieces, her body crushed under a car. In July, a 16-year-old girl was brutally gang raped and murdered in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Protests erupted across the state after the incident, with police stations burnt down in outpouring of anger.

Despite general awareness about how heinous rape is, punishment is not deterring the crime. Women still get gawked at, stared at and harassed in urban and rural cities alike. India’s economy is developing at a rapid pace, but the social problems are yet to be solved. Despite increasing foreign direct investment and the creation of more industries, women all across the country continue to feel scared to venture out at night.

Women continue to be more likely to remain illiterate and drop out of schools, while patriarchy continues unabated in Indian households. Girls are killed before they are born (a study by The Lancet estimated that 12 million female fetuses were aborted between 1980 and 2010), and if they are born, they are subjected to a life of subservience to the overarching male figure in the family.

Patriarchy needs to be dissolved at the root, from within the familial system. It’s no surprise that the prominent owner of a popular magazine can digitally rape a woman in a lift of a hotel, since consent as a term is hardly taught to men in Indian society. Marital rape still goes unnoticed, as the law states that only forced sex on women over the age of 15 can be considered a crime. This rules out child marriages. According to India’s 2011 census data, a shocking 12 million child marriages were recorded in the country.

Why India Needs a Feminist Discourse

Jyoti Singh’s case was not the rarest of the rare. The degree of violence toward a rape victim should not be the gold standard for issuing capital punishment. However, this does not mean popular opinion should be discarded in such cases. Rather, the punishment for rape should be made harsher than a life sentence, to factor in other rape cases that are currently pending in the courts.

Rape cases are being reported in Indian media more widely than ever before. Every day seems to be bring more horror, with neither nuns, children nor babies being spared the wrath of rape. It is time now, more than ever before, to let ethics and feminist values permeate the Indian classroom — a building block for children’s ethical consciousness. Remedial classes in prisons and feminist teachings in schools and colleges need to be introduced with immediate effect.

Indian feminism is commonly looked at as a strand of Western feminism, one that does not fit into the “standards” and particularities of Indian society. More than a foreign concept, the use of feminism needs to be understood first. Feminism is about equality across all genders. It is about viewing people as human before anything else. Strong-headed women with opinions are treated as anomalies in Indian societies and feminists are shunned for their “radical” opinions. The Indian concept of tradition is restricting women and creating more barriers around them. Little or no interaction between genders and viewing rape as an attack on a woman’s “honor” are just some of the myriad problems behind the psychology of rape.

Rape is a continuing problem across the world, but that doesn’t mean the system should give up on working to prevent it. India needs to accept the innate problem it has with patriarchy and conduct an in-depth analysis of the areas, age groups and social sectors rapists belong to before proceeding with further law-making. The situation on the ground needs to improve.

Petty regional politics and bad administration are letting crime go unchecked. Corruption within the police in many areas disrupts case proceedings, and political mud-slinging tends to garner more attention than justice for the victim and her family. India’s laws still continue to marginalize victims and create divides between them. Rape victims from lower castes and strata of society are usually the last ones to get justice.

While those rape cases that get airtime in the media need to be dealt with, the Indian administration has to understand that the media always doesn’t need to publicize an event for it to take action. The Nirbhaya verdict should create a domino effect in taking swift action to solve the situation for women across the country rather than waiting for protests after yet another rape to take corrective action.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com