August 4, 2014

Women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi’s decision to focus immediate attention on ending sexual violence against women and girls is good news. However, knee-jerk solutions like death penalty for rapists and lowering the age of a juvenile from 18 to 16 will not help end sexual violence against women. It is easy and populist to argue that if a child’s old enough to commit rape, he is surely old enough to be tried as an adult in the court of law. But this is not the right approach.

The fundamental philosophy of juvenile justice is that it should focus on reform rather than retribution. Children under 18 are not considered mature enough to vote or to marry. That same principle is applied in domestic law, which places children under a separate jurisdiction. India should not violate its commitments to protect the rights of its children to appease public opinion.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which India ratified in 1992, encourages the use of alternatives to incarceration to ensure that children are dealt with in a manner appropriate to their well-being and proportionate to their circumstance and the offence. The government should develop juvenile facilities that offer proper counselling and training to give children who commit serious crimes a chance to grow into responsible adults.

India has laws to protect women and children from sexual abuse. But the government still has to do a lot more to remove institutional barriers that prevent people from reporting sexual violence. It should create a well-trained and accountable police force that responds sensitively to complaints. It needs to build a functional victim and witness protection programme.

Instead of hasty measures, the government should make a commitment to effective law enforcement and the more difficult and lengthy steps needed to reform the criminal justice system. This will need concerted political will to invest in and train police, forensic specialists, counsellors, etc. And it means providing adequate resources for reformative institutions, protection services and courts.

Women and girls are in need of protection, but simply announcing greater punishment for juvenile offenders won’t help.

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