Given the evidence, the guilty verdict and death sentences for four men in the gang rape and murder of a young student in Delhi in December 2012 are hardly a surprise. Despite an image of India held by many Indians and people abroad of a Gandhian society built on non-violence, there was a loud chorus in the country to hang the defendants.  

To those unfamiliar with the systemic gaps in the Indian criminal justice system, the demand that the accused be hanged might seem the obvious way to stop such brutal assaults. This attack, and several that have followed since, brought people out on the streets demanding protections.

It also brought about a certain awareness: it is now widely understood that violence against women and children, including sexual abuse, is disturbingly common in India. This in itself is some small progress. Immediately after the Delhi rape, several in the country’s political and religious leadership disgraced themselves with insensitive remarks about women. A culture of moral policing—mob attacks on women in pubs, targeting of young couples on Valentine’s Day, and similar vigilante action—which politicians tolerate, even encourage, has exacerbated the unsafe conditions for women.

Today’s verdict is particularly troubling, however. Those who argue, as has Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, that capital punishment will act as a deterrent, should look into the matter further. Studies fail to conclusively demonstrate that the death penalty reduces or deters crime.

The home minister and his government would do better to address the government’s failure to effectively investigate and prosecute rape in the county. The government should remove institutional barriers that prevent people from reporting sexual violence. It should create a well-trained and accountable police force—with more women police officers—that responds sensitively to complaints, seriously investigates them, and gathers prosecutable evidence. It needs to build a functional victim and witness protection program.

The death penalty is no solution. It may have a popular appeal and seem like the easy option, but the government should abolish this inhumane measure and get down to the harder task of institutional reform. That would be the way to really protect women and girls from future attacks.