Women demonstrate on the streets of Kolkata on April 17 against child rapes in Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir states. (Photo by IANS)
India's parliament has passed a law allowing the death penalty for raping girls aged under 12, but Catholic Church officials doubt the effectiveness of such a law to curb increasing sexual violence against children across the country.
The bill replaces an emergency amendment made to a criminal law on April 21 following the national outcry over the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Kashmir in January and other horrific cases across the country.
India's penal code had provisions to punish rapists with jail terms of seven years but had no harsher punishment for those convicted of raping girls under the ages of 12 or 16.
The new law, approved on July 30, increases the minimum punishment for rape of women to 10 years' rigorous imprisonment. Those convicted of gang rape of girls under 12 will be either executed or jailed for life. Those convicted of gang rape of girls under 16 will be jailed for life.
The new law states that investigation and trial should be completed within two months in the cases of sexual attacks on minors, while appeals should be disposed of within six months. The law allows no provision for anticipatory bail.
Home Affairs Minister Kiren Rijiju told media that the law aims to curb increasing violence against children.
India's official crime data show the number of reported rapes of children increased from 8,541 in 2012 to 19,765 in 2016 — more than 50 a day.
However, Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Indian Catholic bishops' conference, said the church cannot accept the death penalty however grave the crime.
"The Catholic Church is against the death penalty but the law of the land will take its stand and we respect it. But our biggest question is — will it help solve the issues?" he told ucanews.com
Sister Mary Scaria, a Supreme Court lawyer, said rape cases will not stop until offenders are educated to respect their mothers and sisters.
"Why all of a sudden the new law? We have a very good judiciary system which can tackle any crime, be it rape or murder. Is the government serious about it?" she asked, suggesting the government move was to appease public appeals for stringent punishment of child rapists.
Some Hindu and Muslim leaders also doubted the effectiveness of the new law and said it will be more important to focus on social change that will stop seeing women and girls as commodities to be used for work and pleasure.
Hindu spiritual guru Goswami Sushil Ji Maharaj said the Hindu religion reveres girls like goddesses, so attacks on them cannot be tolerated. All need to work toward a social change that stresses equality for all.
"We have no right to take away a life but sometimes it can give a message about the gravity of the crime," he said.
Muhammad Arif, chairman of the Center for Harmony and Peace in Uttar Pradesh, said he was confused by another law. "We have more than enough laws to check cases like rape, but do we implement them seriously?" he asked.
He said many sexual assaults could have been stopped if the government had been alert and serious about the problem. A near-total failure of the machinery in New Delhi and in states is responsible for increasing sexual assaults on children, he said.