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'Death is not the solution'

Gabriel DomínguezSeptember 13, 2013

An Indian court has sentenced four men to death for a fatal gang rape last year in New Delhi. But UN Women's representative Rebecca Tavares believes capital punishment is not the right way to deal with these crimes.

A noose (Photo: dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The crime took place last December when a 23-year-old female physiotherapy student and her male companion were attacked upon boarding a private bus they thought would take them home after watching a movie at a shopping mall in New Delhi. Six attackers savagely beat the man and repeatedly raped the woman, inflicting massive internal injuries with an iron rod, according to police reports. The woman died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.

Some nine months later, four of the adult suspects were sentenced to death by hanging. The presiding judge stated that "in these times, when crime against women is on the rise, the courts cannot turn a blind eye toward such gruesome crimes." But in a DW interview, UN Women's representative for India, Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, says that while perpetrators of crimes against women must be brought to justice, there is no evidence that the death penalty has a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment.

DW: Indian fast-track court judge Yogesh Khanna said the December gang rape in New Delhi was "an extreme case of brutality" and a "beastly crime" that shocked the collective conscience of society. Despite the nature of the crime, do you think the death sentence is the right kind of punishment in this case?

Rebecca Tavares: No, I don't. The official position of the United Nations is that the death penalty is a human rights violation. There is no evidence that capital punishment has a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. While UN Women recognizes the brutality of the crime, we cannot condone that type of punishment for any human.

Dr. Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, the UN Women’s representative for India, Maldives, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. (Copyright: UN Women)
Tavares says there is no evidence that capital punishment has a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonmentImage: UN Women

We believe this ghastly crime deserves the maximum sentence of life imprisonment and that all perpetrators of crimes against women should be brought to justice. But we are also of the opinion that higher conviction rates will serve as a deterrent to those willing to commit acts of violence against women. We therefore call on the government of India to ensure speedy justice to the survivors of the violence and to facilitate the rehabilitation of the perpetrators.

India must reform its judiciary, work with the police to enforce the laws that have been brought forward. The country is a leader in terms of making progressive and positive laws for women, but the problem lies in the enforcement, along with prevailing attitudes and long-standing positions that violate women’s human rights.

What signal do you believe the Indian judiciary is sending out with this ruling?

It is sending a very clear message to the public at large that this type of crime cannot be tolerated. In India and across the world there have been very low conviction rates for rape and other forms of violence against women. It’s time for that to change. The Indian people have demanded an end to the culture of rape. Since the incident took place in December last year, there has been an uptick in the number of crimes against women being reported. More women and more families are now willing to come forward and report cases these cases.

The ghastly attack has also led to many progressive reforms and changes such as the approval by Parliament of the Criminal Amendment Act 2013, which called for an end to impunity, and recognized a broad range of sexual crimes against women. The law acknowledges that lesser crimes often escalate to graver ones and that deterrence is important.

Based on anonymous interviews with more than 10,000 men in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea, a UN study found that about one in ten men had raped a woman who was not his partner. When their wife or girlfriend was included, that figure increased to nearly a quarter. What are the reasons behind such a high prevalence of rape?

One of the interesting aspects of the study is the way the questions were phrased. Instead of asking the participants whether they had ever raped a woman, the researchers asked if they had ever had sex with a woman against her will, which resulted in a positive response in many cases.

The men who took part in the survey thought that they had a right to women’s sexual services automatically. There seems to be a culture of entitlement. This is why we need to work to change men's attitudes towards women, gender relations and long-standing patriarchal structures. But we also need to focus on other aspects such as education, women's economic empowerment and the justice system.

International media mostly focuses on rapes, dowry deaths and forced marriages when reporting about the situation of women in Asia. But what positive changes have taken place in Asian countries?

More and more governments recognize the importance of women and are taking measures to empower them economically. There are many programs involving housing, land distribution and cash transfer especially designed for women. Furthermore, progressive legislation aimed at incorporating prevention, education and a comprehensive approach to addressing violence and discrimination against women is currently being passed in many countries.

Dr. Rebecca Reichmann Tavares is the UN Women’s representative for India, Maldives, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.