Kashmiri law students call for justice on April 19 following the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. (Photo by Sajjad Qayyum/AFP)
Church leaders doubt the effectiveness of India introducing the death penalty for child rape following a nationwide call for stringent laws to end the menace.
Indian President Ram Nath Kovind on April 22 promulgated an ordinance authorizing capital punishment for those convicted of raping girls under the age of 12, a day after the cabinet under Prime Minister Narendra Modi cleared the proposal.
The government rushed through the emergency law, which needs to be ratified in the next sitting of parliament, amid outrage over increasing cases of rape and murder of children.
"The ordinance appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction to console public anger," said Catholic nun and social worker Sister Lizy Thomas in Madhya Pradesh state. She doubted if the death penalty or longer jail terms could help curb rapes.
India reported 10 more cases of child rape on the day the law was promulgated, according to media reports.
The most discussed case has been the gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in the Hindu-dominated Jammu area that was allegedly committed to drive her Muslim community away from the area.
Some members of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party joined Hindu groups who marched early this month in support of those arrested for the crime.
"Rape is rape whether it is a child or a major and the punishment should be same for all who commit the crime," Sister Thomas told ucanews.com.
The ordinance also increased the minimum punishment for rape to 10 years in jail from the current seven years. The maximum is life imprisonment.
The new provisions also aim to speed up investigations and court procedures for child rape. Police should investigate the case within two months and the trial should be completed in another two months.
"We have several laws in this country. Increasing laws or adding punishments cannot result in reduction of crimes," Sister Thomas said. The issue is the efficiency of law enforcement, which almost always helps the rich and powerful get away, she said.
A federal government report said India recorded 38,947 rape cases in 2016 and about 8,000 victims were children under 12. Details show that 520 victims were children under the age of 6, while 1,596 were aged 6-12 and 6,091 were aged 12-16.
Volunteer group Child Rights and You (CRY) says crimes against minors soared 460 percent in 10 years. In 2006, India reported 18,967 such crimes but the number increased to 106,958 in 2016.
"More than 50 percent of crimes against children have been recorded in just five states: Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and West Bengal," CRY said in a statement. It also noted that most crimes against children were sexual violations.
Madhya Pradesh was the first of India's 29 states to introduce the death penalty for a child rapists in December 2017. Rajasthan, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh followed suit. No data are available to establish if the law has helped check the crime.
Persistent church doubts
"There is no doubt that the extraordinary situation warrants extraordinary action," said Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal who heads the bishops' council in Madhya Pradesh. He doubted if even the death penalty for child rapists could bring about social change.
Indian law already has a provision to hand down the death penalty for those convicted of the "rarest of rare" murder cases.
"I doubt if the death penalty can be a strong deterrent against the rape culture," Archbishop Cornelio told ucanews.com. "Rather the government and society at large should work together on changing the mindset of people to respect life, women and children.
"We as a society have failed to uphold basic human values and dignity. Unless we reform our society and ourselves, a harsh law alone is not going to change the mindset of people, but it can be a deterrent."
In many cases, culprits are influenced by pornographic material easily available on the internet to carry out sexual assaults on minor girls or women, Archbishop Cornelio said.
"We need to educate children about the taboo of sex in our schools, colleges and families to avoid such gory incidents. Unless we do, the law cannot curtail such incidents," he said.
"The death penalty does not give an opportunity to a person to reform."
The Catholic Church has been against the death penalty and church leaders in India have consistently opposed capital punishment.
"If they are all sent to the gallows, they will never get the chance to repent and return to normal life," Archbishop Cornelio said.
Lay Catholic leader Daniel John said the death penalty is not a solution to heinous crimes like child rape. He said India needs to "upgrade its moral value system and parents should teach their children values to avoid such crimes."
John added: "Our society is more conservative about sex and that has led many children to experiment, leading to catastrophes like child rape. The law alone cannot curtail such crimes."