India’s cabinet has approved the death penalty for rapists of girls below the age of 12, after Narendra Modi, the prime minister, held an emergency meeting in response to nationwide outrage in the wake of a series of cases.
Saturday’s controversial executive order, or ordinance, amends the criminal law to also include more drastic punishment for convicted rapists of girls under the age of 16, government officials said.
India launched fast-track courts and a tougher rape law that included the death penalty after an assault on a young woman shocked the country in 2012, but India’s rape epidemic has shown no sign of dying down.
There were 40,000 rapes reported in 2016. The victims were children in 40 percent of those cases.
However, Kirti Singh, a women’s rights activist, says capital punishment is unlikely to act as a deterrent in such cases; instead, the authorities should instead focus on carrying out proper investigations and legal processes.
“Studies have shown that death penalty does not act as a deterrent. Our experience shows the same. We are against death penalty,” she told Al Jazeera from New Delhi.
“[In the recent child rape cases], there was a complete breakdown of law and order. It wasn’t as if just because death penalty doesn’t exist, there was this breakdown.
“Some people in India act in with impunity, thinking that they won’t be punished. The certainty of the punishment, rather than the severity of it, should be made sure.”
Some activists want the government to set a timeframe for bringing suspects to justice as Indian courts are notorious for delays, with more than 30 million cases pending.
According to Abhay Singh, an Indian lawyer, “the conviction rate in rape cases in India was only 28 percent, implying that 72 out of 100 suspects are going unpunished”.
Local leaders of Modi’s BJP had appeared to offer support to the men accused, adding to the public disgust.
Protests around the country were further prompted by the arrest of an MP from the BJP last week in connection with the rape of a teenager in Uttar Pradesh, a populous northern state that is governed by the party.
More recently, a sexual attack on an 11-year-old girl was reported in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
The post-mortem revealed the girl had been tortured, raped, strangled and smothered.
Modi’s failure to speak out soon enough during the latest bout of public anger fuelled criticism that his government was not doing enough to protect women.
With a general election due next year, Modi moved quickly to remedy that negative perception by holding the emergency cabinet meeting as soon as he returned on Saturday morning from an official visit to Europe.