The pre-dawn hangings of four men convicted of the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman may have brought a semblance of closure to her parents, prompting her mother, to say, Women will now feel safe. On December 16, 2012, the woman was brutally raped in an empty moving bus in Delhi and she died after battling for her life later that month. A little over seven years later, the first date of execution was set for January 22, and the convicts tried all legal avenues possible to escape the punishment. After the executions, on Friday, her mother said, Families will start teaching their boys that the punishment for such a crime will be severe. But is India any closer to guaranteeing safety for women? In 2012, the government of the day, reacting to the clamour on the streets for justice, set up the Justice J.S. Verma Committee to look into rape laws. The report, filed in a month, led to stringent changes through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, but several recommendations were simply not considered, including those relating to marital rape and police reform.
On the imposition of the death penalty, the government went against what the Verma report had suggested that seeking such a punishment would be a regressive step in the field of sentencing and reformation. Now, repeat offenders in rape cases, even those that unlike the Nirbhaya case did not involve murder, can be awarded the death sentence. The Verma Committee had argued instead for rigorous imprisonment of a convict for life. It is a fact that sexual crimes against women have not come down since the Delhi case. The death penalty could actually encourage the rapist to kill the victim. Going by data in the National Crime Records Bureau report, released in January 2020, a total of 3.78 lakh cases of crimes against women were recorded across India in 2018 compared to 3.59 lakh in 2017 and 3.38 lakh in 2016. The total number of rape cases in 2018 was pegged at 33,356, of which Madhya Pradesh registered 5,450 rapes, the maximum in 2018. The crime rate per one lakh women population was 58.8 in 2018 compared to 57.9 in 2017. At the end of 2018, 33.6% cases were pending police investigation. This raises the key question what does India need to do to protect its girls and women? It is apparent that laws may have changed, but not mindsets. A society that endorses a preference for the male child has already condemned the girl child to an unequal world. Until Indian leaders, policy-makers and society shed the gender bias and the thinking that they need to protect women as a question of honour, there will be no stopping crimes such as rape, sexual assault and harassment.