Editor’s Note: Vedika Sud is a CNN producer based in New Delhi. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Seven years after her daughter was raped, a mother’s battle for justice has finally been fulfilled.
For years, she fought to have the men who raped and murdered her daughter executed. On March 20, she got her wish.
But in India, where a rape of a woman is reported every 16 minutes, this is no time for celebration.
This case dates back to December 16, 2012, when a 23-year-old aspiring physiotherapist was gang raped by a group of men on a moving bus. The injuries were so grave that death, in her case, was painfully slow and inevitable.
The woman, who by Indian law can still not be named because she was a rape victim, died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital. The Indian media called her by the pseudonym, “Nirbhaya” – in Hindi, “the fearless one.”
The details of the case – which include her being violated with iron rods – are enough to make your skin crawl, but they explain why the case prompted such an emotional reaction. Never before had the country witnessed large scale protests against the government and police over a rape. For weeks after the attack, three words reverberated through the streets of India: “Hang the rapists.”
Within a year of their incarceration, the four men convicted of Nirbhaya’s rape and murder were sentenced to death. And in the months and years since, a debate has raged both in and outside India’s parliament over how best to stop the country’s persistent rape problem.
Since the attack, India has amended its rape laws, widening the definition to include anal and oral penetration. Gang rapists now face a possible life sentence, and repeat rape offenders can be handed the death penalty.
But these tougher laws haven’t brought down the number of rapes. In fact, the number of rapes in 2018 – the last year for which there are statistics – was significantly higher than in 2012.
Opponents of the death penalty say the threat of execution does little to deter offenders, and does not address the societal problems that lead to sexual assault.
“It is very easy for the government to respond to these acts of brutal sexual violence with the death penalty. It’s an easy solution, it sells well with the public,” says Anup Surendranath, an expert in the death penalty at the National Law University, Delhi. “But it is no solution at all. I think everybody is clear that this is not going to prevent sexual violence or have any real impact on preventing sexual violence in the future.”
Opponents like Surendranath point to a chilling trend – to avoid prison time, rapists are killing their victims to destroy the evidence and silence them.
Last year, for instance, a woman in Hyderabad was gang raped and then murdered. Her body then was burned to prevent identification. That same year, a rape survivor on her way to court to testify against the perpetrators was accosted and set on fire. She died a day later.
Some speculate that if rapists are willing to kill to avoid a jail term, they may be even more likely to kill to avoid the death penalty.
But there’s a bigger argument against fighting violence with more violence.
Remember, sexual violence in India remains a complex social and cultural issue. This is arguably the biggest cause for crimes against women in the country. Justice is often only part of the remedy – a huge responsibility also lies with the system and society.
According to activists, rape cases are still under reported – victims are reluctant to come forward as they fear substandard investigations and the risk of intimidation by their alleged attacker if they lay a complaint. And even when cases get to court, most don’t result in convictions – in 2018, there were convictions in only 27.2% of cases. As Vrinda Grover, an advocate in India’s Supreme Court, told CNN: “We have nothing in the name of witness victim protection, what is offered to women is a constable in front of her house.”
If India really wants to change the dire rape statistics, it needs to address the chronic social disease: patriarchal attitudes.
In 2013, Dr Madhumita Pandey, an academic at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom, interviewed over 100 convicted rapists and murderers in India as part of her doctoral research. Her findings suggest a blatant lack of acceptance of responsibility by rapists for their actions, coupled with a sense of entitlement. The oft-repeated narrative she experienced while interviewing rapists was victim shaming.
And, unfortunately, perpetrators of sexual violence are not isolated in their assumptions. In huge swathes of Indian society, especially in rural areas, women continue to be either objectified or confined to the four walls of their homes. Archaic gender norms limit them to baby making machines. “Subjugation of women – combined with masculinity – is bound to manifest in some extreme manner. In this case, it’s sexual abuse and violence,” Pandey told CNN.
As with anywhere in the world, justice will always be subjective. For Nirbhaya’s mother, justice is death for the men who gang raped her daughter. For others, it ends with the incarceration of the convicts.
But justice will never mean the continuation of sexual violence against women. To stop that kind of injustice, India as a country must continue its introspection, understand why sexual violence arises, and bring it to an end.
Violence to end violence cannot be the solution.