Retributive Justice may not help mitigate crimes against Women

Written by Naveed Mehmood | Published on: September 7, 2018

Need to address underlying socio-cultural factors 

crime against women

Image Courtesy: AFP

At the core of today’s public discourse remains a very crucial issue, the increase in the crimes committed against women and children. The recently published report that categorises India as the most dangerous for women in the world should invoke a debate, not on its veracity (even though many want to), but on how to control the rise in crime; let’s accept that even if it’s not the highest in the world, it’s not the lowest either.
Over the past few years, a trend has emerged wherein the public seeks reform in the law; the reform as per the demands has to incorporate stricter punishment. The judiciary and legislature respond to the demands, and thereby provide the same.
The Delhi gang-rape case of 2012 is an appropriate example, when thousands of people assembled and demanded stricter laws and harsher punishments for convicts in rape cases. The government responded, the Justice Verma Committee made recommendations, and then came the Criminal Law Amendment of 2013. A similar situation arose this year, when reports of children being abused, raped and murdered came pouring in, and people sought stricter punishments for such inhumane acts against children. The Government responded by bringing about a law providing for the death penalty as punishment for the rape of a child under the age of 12. Lawmaking has never been a problem in India. In fact, we are more than happy to enact statutes, because that mitigates the public temper. 
In a recent ‘Mann ki Baat’ programme, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that the new law would ensure that crimes against women are reduced. This is not an isolated belief; many of us hold the same opinion and believe in the deterrent effect of law. 
What concerns me here is the notion that ‘punishment cures all crimes’–after all we love retribution. I do not disagree on the point of punishment, which in certain cases is the only way out, but we forget that the idea of ‘deterrence through law’ has proved to be a failure. I don’t think the accused in the Delhi case opened the Indian Penal Code to check for the offence of rape, and, finding that there could be no serious ramifications, engaged in committing the crime. Similarly, the perpetrators in the Kathua, Unnao, Manipur, and Mandsaur cases would not be concerned about the quantum of punishment that they could get if they would be convicted. In all these cases, the perpetrators proceeded without any sense of concern for the law, or to be precise, the punishments that the law provided.  Therefore, what we need to ask ourselves is whether a stronger law or stricter punishments help in preventing such incidents. There have also been observations that sentencing a person to death for raping a child may even drive the perpetrator to murder the victim to avoid detection.  
We have to return to the simple idea ‘prevention’, something that our law or policies don’t consider. We need to look back at our education system, at our social inclusion policies, and more importantly, the rigid adherence to gender stereotypes. We need to check this sense of hyper-masculinity that could be a major reason behind the growing crimes against women. As has been pointed out by Richa Sharma and Susan Bazili (2014,) law as a lone warrior is doomed to fail in addressing violence against women, and a multi-sectoral approach is required wherein civil society participation and social movements have to be at the core. 

Naveed Mehmood Pursuing Masters from TISS, Mumbai