Rape is the intentional penetration of a woman without her consent and remains one of the most common and dangerous crimes worldwide. Rape stems from the longstanding social issue of toxic masculinity. Fundamentally, rapists feel the need to rape to establish dominance over women. In many countries, including India, a patriarchal society exists, where women are expected to assume a subservient role to men. As a result, common motives amongst rapists include revenge for the victim’s rejection of the man’s earlier romantic advances and the objectification of women. Looking at the former, people often rape because they interpret the rejection of their romantic interests as a blow to their pride. Hence, they take ‘revenge’ through rape to compensate for having been ‘wronged’. In the case of objectification, rapists dehumanise women, viewing them as objects; known as the ‘rape myth’, rapists tend to believe the false narrative that ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and that women want them and are ‘exciting’ them by saying ‘no’.

Not all causes of rape are due to gender inequality. Given many countries’ – like India’s – conservative values, sex (namely premarital sex) is a taboo topic, meaning sex education is rare or lacking. As a result, people are not adequately taught concepts like consent and safe sex. Until 2018, India’s Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, had been reluctant to incorporate sex education in school curriculums. Granted, students in India now learn about sexual violence and sexual health. But general sex education outside schools stays low, with a) the widespread preaching of abstinence before marriage and b) parents avoiding talking to their children about relationships and sexual health. A lack of awareness amongst adolescents and those who have grown up without a substantive mode of sex education ultimately leads to the practice of unsafe sex and sexual violence from a young age.

On the face of it, the number of rape cases in developed and third-world countries varies, with no clear pattern dividing the two. South Africa has the highest rate of rape incidents as of 2021, with an estimated rate of 132.4 – approximately 66,196 reported incidents per 100,000 people. In the USA, the rape rate stands at 27.3 – 84,767 reported incidents per 100,000 people. India’s rate of 1.8 (22,172 per 100,000) is comparatively low. However, we must consider the context of India’s rape rate. First, the number of rape incidents is usually higher than stated in many countries since cases go unreported due to victims’ fear of social exclusion or an ineffective justice system. Second, we need to put India’s rape rate into perspective. Though the rape rate may appear low, in reality, rape is a prevalent problem in India, with approximately 32,559 attacks occurring in 2019 – almost 90 rape attacks per day – though this figure is likely higher because of unreported cases. Third, the number of rape incidents in some developing countries may be lower than they seem because of existing laws. For example, India does not criminalise marital rape committed against all married women. Rather, Section 275 of the Indian Penal Code only bans marital rape in marriages where the wife is below 15 years of age. Since marital rape is not a separate criminal offence for all women, most women have to report it by pursuing a domestic violence claim. Thus, since not all forms of rape are criminalised, national statistics simply cannot include all attacks. 

Given the severe physical and psychological harm caused to victims, many countries issue harsh punishments against rapists. The most punitive measure is the death sentence in countries like India, Afghanistan, Iran and Egypt. In 2013, India’s parliament passed a law entailing that perpetrators with previous convictions or those who had killed the victim after raping them could receive the death penalty. The Delhi gang rape case in 2012 had sparked this crackdown on sexual violence. The four rapists who had raped and killed a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a moving bus were hanged in 2020. The death sentence was also approved in India in 2018 for rapists who rape girls under 12. Other methods of retributive punishment include chemical and surgical castration. The former, legalised more recently in Indonesia in 2016 and Ukraine in 2019, aims to repress men’s sexual urges. Legalised in the Czech Republic in 1966, surgical castration involves the removal of male genitals. Life sentences are the most common penalty, whereby rapists may spend up to 30 years in prison.

Are retributive punishments suitable in a civilised society? While severe punishments like the death penalty and castration are reserved for extremely violent crimes and could provide closure for the victim and their families, they do not yield fruitful results such as deterrence. Harsher laws seem to assume that perpetrators are not affected by any economic, social and cultural factors. Take India: social values and the lack of sex education amongst individuals mean that many people are not aware of the boundary between healthy sexual relations and sexual violence. Is rehabilitating criminals more effective?

Norway’s treatment of criminals is a prime example of effective rehabilitation. In Norway, life imprisonment and the death penalty do not exist, no matter how brutal or violent the crime. The maximum prison sentence is 21 years, with very few perpetrators – namely murderers – serving more than 14 years in prison. Further, Norwegian prisons are far from bare, offering perks like saunas and tanning beds. Crime and incarceration rates in Norway remain low compared to other countries because of the focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Yet, it must be noted that the gap between the wealthy and the poor in Norway is narrow, essentially meaning that crime rates are anyway low. It would be incredibly difficult for other countries where societies are divisive, less benevolent, and therefore susceptible to violent crime to implement a successful large-scale rehabilitation programme for all criminals.

Consequently, though retributive punishment is arguably understandable for rapists who have brutally raped, killed or assaulted their victim in such countries, smaller steps towards rehabilitation like education programmes could be more effective for adolescents and those who have committed forms of sexual harassment other than rape and violent sexual assault. Treatment and educational programmes would be more cost-effective by yielding better long-term results. Such programmes could decrease the rate of rape. In fact, studies in Australia and New Zealand concluded that instilling early prevention programmes would prevent people from reoffending or committing worse crimes. Education is crucial; entrenched social values mean that perpetrators may not even know why their motives and crimes are unjustified. By having countries focus more on education than retribution for certain types of sexual harassment, it would not only be tackling high crime rates but would also be uprooting dangerous social attitudes.

Rape remains a prevalent global problem. So, conversations about sex and sexual violence must be initiated. By raising awareness through the education of individuals at home and schools and implementing prevention programmes for certain offenders, we could see a decline in rape rates in the future.

Credits – Shwetha Sivaraman

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