The demand for death penalty for rapes in Nepal tacks to the illiberal winds blowing across the world, helped in no small part by the speedy growth of social media. Of course, most of us are outraged when we first hear of an incident like the Sept 23 rape-and-murder of a 12-year-old Dalit girl of Bajhang district. Pre-social media, we had time to think through such cases, and to weigh evidence for the efficacy of extreme measures like death penalty before we jumped to conclusions. We would then know capital punishment as a crime-deterrent is ineffective, and often counterproductive.
On paper, Pakistan hangs the rapists of minors. But when a minor is actually raped there, it is the victim who cops more of the blame for appearing ‘slutty’ or wearing ‘revealing’ clothes. Seldom are the men punished. Bangladesh—with over 1,000 cases of sexual assaults in 2020 alone—just reinstated death penalty for rapes. Yet it is expected to have minimal deterrent effect. In one survey, nearly 90 percent of men who admitted to sexually assaulting women in Bangladesh said they expected to get away with it. The Maldives flogs women who have premarital sex. Things are no better in Sri Lanka (which has lately been in the news for systemic rape of male Tamil detainees). where Tamil detainees the police the ‘rape capital’ of South Asia. Then there is Bhutan, where the husband of a raped woman is liable for compensations for the wife’s ‘adultery’.
The attitude to sexual violence and rapes is as blasé in India. Men feel entitled to physically prevail upon women, and many of them express surprise when told they might be prosecuted for ‘having sex’ with a woman of their choice. India has had no letup in rapes since the hanging of the four gang-rapists in the Nirbhaya case in March, anecdotal evidence suggests.
The problem, again, is lack of conviction for rapes—perhaps as little as 5 percent of all sexual offenders in South Asia are punished—thanks to the corrupt and tardy legal systems. Legal scholars in SAARC member states are nearly unanimous that guaranteed punishment would be a stronger deterrent for rapes than the provision of death penalty. After all, if nobody is convicted, even death penalty becomes meaningless.
Only authoritarian states like China and North Korea still routinely mete out the death penalty for rapes. A democratic Nepal has been forced to consider this radical option, partly as people here are losing their trust in the government. Perhaps they would be okay with a long prison sentence for rapists if they were sure that these rapists would serve out their time.
Thankfully, women MPs in Nepal have been more sober-minded. Some are still gung ho on death penalty, yet most of them say they are open to other options, including chemical castration of convicted rapists and longer jail terms.
The growing voice of our women is another thing that is worth celebrating. Nepali women—our MPs, lawyers, rights activists—are more than capable of working out just and effective punishments for sexual offenders. This in turn emphasizes the need to have more women in decision-making bodies. Our new constitution outlining guaranteed women’s representation goes some way towards ensuring this. But, again, it’s just the first step.