Death penalty may not prove a deterrent for rape in South Asia

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  • Sunday, 18 Oct 2020

Anger: Women in Pakistan protesting the rape of a woman in Lahore.

IT is not a coincidence that most nations in South Asia are, amid the coronavirus-induced restrictions, seeing a sharp increase in incidents of rape.

Nepal’s government has been battling charges of letting rapists get away with impunity. Horrific instances of rape are being reported almost every day from India, and Pakistan was rocked by the rape of a woman near Lahore last month.

But it is the Bangladesh government of Sheikh Hasina that has reacted substantively to outrage over a series of gang rapes and sexual assaults.

Rocked by nearly 1,000 incidents of rape between January and September, a fifth of them gang rapes, the country’s Cabinet this week approved the death penalty for rapists.

But the extreme penalty may not prove a deterrent, as a majority of those charged with rape manage to slip through the cracks of a lethargic judicial system which sees a very low conviction rate.

This problem is not peculiar to Bangladesh, for similar lacunae allow rapists to get away in both India and Nepal. Enhancing the punishment alone will not address the problem, as India has learnt.

Even though laws there were made far more stringent in the wake of the Nirbhaya rape case (23-year-old Jyoti Singh was gang-raped and killed), and the rapists were hanged seven years later, it has not proven to be a deterrent, with cases being reported almost daily from different parts of the country.

The latest outrage in Bangladesh followed the circulation of a video that showed a group of men stripping and repeatedly attacking a woman for almost half an hour. An investigation by the country’s Human Rights Commission rev-ealed that the woman had been raped and terrorised for the past year by one of the men in the video.

This case led to an outpouring of protests on the streets of Dhaka, forcing the government to issue an ordinance mandating the death penalty.

But as activists say, the culture of impunity is well ingrained in South Asian society and they cite a United Nations report of 2013 which had found that 88% of rural respondents and 95% of urban respondents in Bangladesh said they faced no legal consequences after committing rape. The problem is compounded by victims who do not report the crime, fearing stigmatisation.

Activists say rapists manage to obtain protection and even patronage from political figures, who then use them to further their activities.

While Sheikh Hasina’s government may have managed the direction of the discourse for now with the announcement of the death penalty, it will, like India, Pakistan and Nepal’s governments, have to radically transform the system of criminal justice if it truly wants to deter rapists. — The Statesman/Asia News Network

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