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Delhi Gang Rape: Death Penalty May Not be the Solution India Needs

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Protests have been raging in India for almost two weeks now in response to the violent gang rape and beating of a young woman on a bus in Delhi. As the woman, whose name has not been released, struggles to stay alive in a hospital in Singapore, her country is demanding systematic reforms to keep the women of India safe, and the severe and immediate punishment of her attackers, with many people calling for the death penalty.

“These rapists should be hanged publicly,” the New York Times quoted one protester, Shaelly Tomar, a student at Delhi University as saying. “If that happens, nobody will dare to do it again.”

This case has become a symbol of the danger Indian woman face everyday in a country the Times reported is one of the least safe in the world for women. It’s understandable that people are angry and that they want justice. But the citizens of India should focus the passion they feel about this case toward overall reform, not getting revenge on the perpetrators of this one crime.

I don’t say this because of a moral opposition to the death penalty. In fact, I think there are cases where the death penalty is certainly called for, and have no qualms about that. But instituting the death penalty for rape is dangerous. If rape is punishable by death, perpetrators have no reason to leave their victims alive, especially if they are able to identify them. Making rape punishable by death won’t deter rapists; it will encourage them to escalate to murder.

The focus of the protests should be fixing a system where women are in constant danger of being attacked, where they’re afraid to come forward when it happens, and where their attackers often go free.

Tens of thousands of rapes are reported yearly in India, the Times reported, estimating that many more go unreported because of the stigma attached — rape victims are often shunned and unable to marry.

“The roots of the problem run deep in a conservative society that is having trouble adjusting to educational and economic advances by women, long confined to the home,” Gardiner Harris of the Times wrote. “Demographics also play a role, with half of India’s population under 25 and female infanticide and the neglect of girls creating a growing gender imbalance.”

Many of India’s chief ministers have stepped forward to say that reform is needed, according to DNAIndia, including increased police presence on the streets, but thus far details are murky and commitments vague. Protesters should turn their energy toward making sure that steps are actually taken, and that calls for reform aren’t just being made to placate.

The real question here isn’t whether the perpetrators of this crime will be punished, but whether this horrific event, which seems to have struck a cord with so many, will be the wake up call needed to spark serious change in India. 

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