How India’s rape name-and-shame database could backfire

December 28, 2012

A woman who was gang raped by six drunken men in New Delhi on Dec. 16 continues to fight for her life in a Singapore hospital, having sustained a heart attack, a lung and abdominal infection and “significant” brain injury. (Update: The AP reported Friday afternoon that the woman has died.) The 23-year-old medical student was severely beaten with an iron rod, raped for almost an hour and thrown out of a moving bus, sparking massive protests across the country over a perceived lack of government action to stem violence against women there.

“There is insecurity at every level. Women are even harassed when they go to police stations to report sexual-violence reports," one protester, Sucheta Dey, told Time magazine.

Now, India's government is coming up with a series of rapid-fire measures to attempt to quell some of the outrage. Most recently, authorities have offered to "name and shame" convicted rapists by listing their photos, names and addresses on official Web sites.

Minister of state for home affairs Ratanjit Pratap Narain Singh said the database would start in New Delhi, where the gang rape occurred, and then expand to other parts of India.

"We are very serious about dealing with the problem and taking all possible action as early as possible," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said.

The New Delhi rape seems to be a particularly gruesome example of a widespread problem, and the ensuing protests have caught the Indian government off-guard. According to the India's own statistics, two women are raped every hour in the country, and rapes have increased by 20 percent between 2007 and 2011.

The target of the protesters' anger seems to be India's archaic sexual violence laws and a culture of impunity for offenders, with even authorities demonstrating a blase attitude toward rape. In the wake of the Dec. 16 incident, officials have been criticized for belittling rape victims, and the son of India's president apologized after calling the protesters "highly dented and painted” women, who go "from discos to demonstrations," the AP reported.

Protesters have called for far worse fates for India's rapists than online exposure -- including execution and chemical castration. Some argue that the public database is far from an effective remedy for the epidemic of violence. Writing in First Post,  says the idea seems like the move of a government grasping for a quick fix to appease popular fury:

It’s always worrisome when policies are cooked up in an overheated chamber of  righteous popular outrage. This proposed database seems prompted less by a concern for public safety than a belated attempt by a flatfooted government to give the appearance of swift action. If we cannot hang them in the public square, let’s hang them in a public database at least.

If groups of people are capable of gang-raping innocent women, he argues, they might be just as likely to target even suspect rapists for vigilante justice, as they already have following the gang-rape incident: 

Soon after the Delhi gangrape, five men in a Jharkhand village,  all “suspected eve teasers” were beaten to death by an angry mob.

Instead, he suggests the government "fast-track justice" when rapes do occur.

Officials have seemed to ramp up their efforts to crack down on sexual violence.

Authorities in Punjab suspended one police officer and fired two others Thursday on accusations they delayed investigating a separate case of an 18-year-old woman who killed herself by drinking poison a month after she told police she was gang-raped. The government has also offered to create a new help line for women’s complaints and gender-appropriate training for the capital’s police officers, and they've suggested making rape punishable with the death penalty in the "rarest of the rare" cases.  

But activists in India say only 26 out of 100 cases of rape there are punished. As the government weighs death penalties and rape databases, it may not be the severity of the punishment, but its certainty, that matters.

 

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Olga Khazan | December 27, 2012