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After rape of 5-year-old girl, India debates even stricter punishments

India recently passed tougher sentences for rape convictions. After this latest case, protesters want even harsher penalties put in place, but analysts argue police reform is more critical. 

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Indian women activists of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party jostle with Indian policewomen outside ruling United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s residence during a protest against the rape of a 5-year-old girl in New Delhi, India, Sunday.

Manish Swarup/AP

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Protests over the rape of a 5-year-old in Delhi have renewed the debate in India about what needs to be done about the country's rape problem.

In the aftermath of large, daily protests over the rape and murder of a 23-year-old in December, the government had passed a new law that strengthened the punishment for rape convictions. The law expanded eligibility for the death penalty to repeated rapists and rapes in which the victim dies or is left an invalid. And the law boosted the minimum sentence in the rape of minors from seven to 20 years in prison. 

"Such legislation has come to India for the first time and the Parliament has given its approval. It will create a revolution in the country," Home Affairs Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had said about the law last month.

But the stiffer penalties did not appear to deter the rape of the 5-year-old daughter of construction laborers. Some of the protesters are now focused on ratcheting up punishment again by expanding the death penalty to those convicted of raping minors. The demands by protesters have been echoed by Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in Parliament.

"Nothing short of a death sentence in cases of rape of children and in cases involving brutality and barbarity will help," Ms. Swaraj said after meeting the girl in the hospital.

The child survived after having been raped for over two days and having various objects inserted into her. The alleged rapist, Manoj Sah, was arrested in his village 620 miles east of New Delhi.

Protesters have also been demanding the resignation of Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar in the wake of allegations that the local police had refused to help find the child when she was missing. Her parents told the media the police were not even wiling to file a complaint and offered them a bribe of 2,000 rupees (around $37) to not approach the media.

Analysts say India does not need harsher punishments or new laws but more basic reforms in policing to curb rape.

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Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, says no laws will succeed unless "a sense of accountability is instilled amongst law enforcement personnel. The law is no magic wand, implementation is the key. The police [do] not take violence against women and the issue of missing poor children seriously."

The solutions, she says, need to focus on making the police work to bring the rapists to justice. "We need police reforms and police training such that the police understand they are bound to constitutional duty and not see themselves as a tool of repression."

Prominent human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover said the new law has a provision to sentence for two years police officers refusing to file a complaint in such cases, but that this has so far not been acted upon in the case of the 5-year-old. "The police are not only not trained to understand the meaning of citizens' rights, they do not even know the laws," says Ms. Grover.

In the wake of the Dec. 16 rape case, the government had set up a committee under the chairmanship of a retired Supreme Court judge, J.S. Verma. "The report has a full chapter on police reforms that nobody is even talking about," says Shweshtree Majumdar, a young woman lawyer who assisted the committee.


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