Does the death penalty afford meaningful redress in rape cases?

Tackling rape requires change, not retribution. Why the death penalty doesn't help rape victims.

Hundreds of women, young and old, continue to protest across India in silent marches, demanding justice for the 23-year-old who lost her life after being brutally assaulted and gang-raped in Delhi. Her brother has publicly called for the execution of those responsible, declaring “We want all the accused hanged, and we will fight for that, till the end.” Since the attack, hundreds of new articles have been written, both to heighten awareness about the pervasiveness of rape in India and to encourage legal reform to increase the number of prosecutions and convictions: many including government officials and victims are calling for the death penalty or chemical castration as punishment for sexual assault.

The collective outcry that this horrific case has provoked parallels that roused by a similar case in Pakistan: on 22 June 2002, Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped in her remote village by four men from a rival tribe. The involvement of the international media and human rights groups expedited the usually slow process of prosecution by encouraging the case to be tried through Pakistan’s anti-terrorism court: by 1 September, six men had been convicted and sentenced to death. In March 2005, before the sentence could be carried out, the Lahore High Court overturned the convictions of five of the men, and commuted the sixth’s sentence to life imprisonment, citing insufficient evidence and faulty investigation. In 2011, the Supreme Court (Special Shariat Branch) acquitted four of the men, also citing lack of evidence, despite the fact that many villagers had witnessed the assault.

Mukhtar has campaigned tirelessly for her rapists’ arrest. She continues to express anger towards her attackers and a desire for vengeance: “I could hire men to kill my attackers. How does one survive dishonour? How does one overcome despair? With anger, at first, with an instinct for revenge that resists the tempting solution of death, an instinct that allows one to recover, go forward, act.” Yet neither the death penalty nor chemical castration offers an answer to the problem of violence against women and girls. Indeed, in India these forms of retribution might well encourage perpetrators to silence victims and witnesses through murder or intimidation, worsening the situation for victims.

The nature of the penalties for rape and other forms of violence against women is not the core issue. The focus of debate should be on the fact that prosecution, let alone conviction, is rare and so penalties of any sort are rarely enforced. Many Indian women feel they have little or no recourse against violence and rape as legal action is not pursued in most cases. Indeed, marital rape still cannot be prosecuted as a stand-alone law in India, showing that the sanctity of marriage is still prioritised over preventing violence against women. Thus, at the root of India’s inability to deal with violence against women is the fact that patriarchal values that subordinate women to men are endemic in every aspect of society.

The problem is compounded in rural areas; for instance, upper caste men regularly use the gang rape of Dalit women for political purposes, often with impunity. In the rare cases when perpetrators are convicted in India, victims must still face the enormous challenges of surviving in a patriarchal society where they are considered to have been dishonoured by the crimes committed against them. This dishonour has major implications for marriage and even casual contact with other members of Indian society. For this reason, most victims remain silent about sexual violence.

Feminist groups in India argue that about 96 per cent of female victims are sexually assaulted by people known to them. Seeking legal redress under these circumstances often means being shunned not only by one’s family but also the wider community. Moreover, when assailants are in a position of power, as in Mukhtar’s case, influence is often exerted to prevent the registration, let alone investigation, of complaints.

India is at a crucial point in developing effective responses to violence against women. Feminists have made numerous submissions to the Justice Verma Committee about the urgent need for change. The committee has urged the public in general and particularly eminent jurists, legal professionals, NGOs, women’s groups and civil society to share “their views, knowledge and experience suggesting possible amendments in the criminal and other relevant laws to provide for quicker investigation, prosecution and trial, as also enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault of an extreme nature against women.” Awareness-raising is a start, but it is not enough. If change is to be meaningful – for victims and for wider society – it must address both the spectrum of violence against women and girls and the need for coordinated educational and legal reforms backed by coherent policy.

There is cause for hope. Recently, Indian rapper Honey Singh’s misogynistic lyrics glorifying rape were challenged through public protests. However, as Mukhtar’s case shows, without strong international pressure and public outcry, justice often has little chance to prevail in patriarchal societies where violence against women and girls is common: when the pressure ceases, the situation reverts to the status quo. The solution is to ensure that both domestic and international pressure to address violence against women and girls is on-going. Only wide-ranging, meaningful change – in Pakistan, India, and beyond – will ensure that redress is available to all victims. However, to be truly effective redress must ensure that it is perpetrators, and not victims, who are shamed and punished by society.

We must look beyond the natural human desire for retributive justice if we are to seek comprehensive solutions that provide a true and lasting legacy of change, development and, ultimately, the eradication of gender-based violence.

Dr Aisha K Gill is a Reader in Criminology at University of Roehampton

Mukhtar Mai and her son in 2011. She has campaigned tirelessly for her rapists’ arrest. Photograph: Getty Images

Dr Aisha K Gill is a Reader in Criminology at University of Roehampton.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times