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Nirbhaya Legacy

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Eight years ago today, a most horrendous event shook the country’s conscience. A 23-year-old physiotherapist named Jyoti Singh was gang-raped and tortured in a bus in New Delhi. She and her male friend  were thrown onto the roadside, with few clothes on. 
Although passersby alerted the police, Singh succumbed to her extreme injuries a fortnight later. In solidarity, citizens named her “Nirbhaya” or “the fearless one.” 
In March this year, four of the six men convicted of the crime were hanged. 
One died in police custody, possibly by suicide, while another, who was a minor at the time of the crime, received the highest prison sentence for juveniles.
 Although many believe that justice was finally served in this case, others believe the legal changes that followed have done little to improve women’s safety. 
 Why?  
In the last year alone, crimes against women have risen by 7.3%. At least 87 women were raped each day, and many more cases certainly went unreported. In the last decade, conviction rates for rape have been steadily declining.
 In 2016, they reached a historic low of just 18.9%. In theory, we should have been seeing the complete opposite. 
In the wake of public protests around the Nirbhaya case, Indian rape laws were amended through The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013.
 Attempting to deter crimes against women, the amendments stated that an offender would be sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison, which could be extended to the end of his life. The altered laws also allowed for death by hanging, in specific cases. 
More importantly, they expanded the definitions of crimes against women to include offences such as stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks, and deemed them non-bailable offences. Previously, such crimes were not treated quite so severely.  Isn’t that good?  
While better laws that account for a wider range of crimes is a crucial step for women’s rights, most experts say that the death penalty is not a solution.
 A 2015 report by the Law of Commission of India suggests that there is no evidence to support the idea that the death penalty is a stronger deterrent than life imprisonment. Instead, capital punishment mostly appeases public outrage and allows governments to show that they are being tough on crime, without necessarily translating that to action on the ground. Many gender and legal experts believe that the death penalty does more harm than good. 
 How?   
Capital punishment for rape could mean that more rapists will murder their victims in order to avoid being caught. 
Activists have also said that the death penalty might actually make survivors more nervous to report incidents. National crime records for 2018 revealed that in more than 93% of rape cases, the offender was known to the woman. 
So if the accused is the woman’s cousin, for instance, her family might pressure her to drop the matter. Moreover, individuals from the weakest sections of society are more likely to be sentenced to the harshest form of punishment. 
Some experts say that retributive justice, like capital punishment, doesn’t actually make the law and order system healthier in the long-run. 
In fact, the Justice Verma Committee, whose recommendations led to rape laws being amended, had warned against the death penalty.
It suggested that gender sensitisation programmes from the school level onwards were more likely to bring real change, at a societal level. 
Of course, not everyone agrees. In 2012, the late Sushma Swaraj gave an impassioned speech in Parliament, pleading for capital punishment in the Nirbhaya case. As Singh battled for her life, Swaraj said that even if she survived, she would be a “living corpse.”
 While many citizens echoed Swaraj’s sentiments, feminist activists were critical of the notion that rape is a fate worse than death. They said that looking at a woman’s worth based on her “honour” in this way only perpetuates patriarchal oppression and victim blaming. A rape cannot be viewed as something that, by default, gives a woman a lesser life.

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