The Madhya Pradesh assembly on Monday unanimously passed a bill to award the death penalty to those involved in the rape or gang-rape of girls aged below 12.
On November 26, the state Cabinet had approved the amendment bill that proposed the addition of two provisos to Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code. After the assembly's nod, the bill will now be forwarded to the Centre for necessary action.
The amendment bill also includes a provision of three years in jail for exploiting women on the false promise of marriage.
Two worrying aspects of the bill are that it only recognises victims who are women, and secondly, it awards death to the culprits.
"Increasing the gender divide and presuming that only girls get raped is a silly position in today's scenario," says Kushi Kushalappa of NGO Enfold that works for the prevention of child sexual abuse.
"We have to cover children who are transgender, boys, and girls equally. When we say only girls can be raped, the message that we continue to send out is that girls are more vulnerable. All children are equally vulnerable," she adds.
Activists and experts also believe that such an approach to tackle child sexual abuse is problematic since it fails to take into account many integral factors surrounding the issue.
In a majority of child sexual abuse cases, the abuser is someone whom the child knows, and many a time, it is a family member.
"But a measure (bill) such as this completely disregards this aspect. Are we expecting that children will come forward and then disclose that the abuse has been perpetrated and then go ahead and testify against their fathers, uncles, brothers or neighbours? Even after they know that their testimony may end up in somebody losing their lives. It is too much of a burden to put on that child," says Bengaluru-based legal researcher Swagata Raha.
That a death penalty has a deterrent effect on crime has also not been established through research.
"One cannot say it can deter crimes. And more importantly, if you look at international standards, they prohibit the imposition of death penalty for offences that do not result in the loss of lives. And that's for a reason, that is the right to life is sacrosanct, and can only be deprived in extreme cases only," Swagata further explains.
Though it is not clear if the increased punishment would apply to offenders who are minors, child rights activist Nina Nayak says that the provisions should not override the Juvenile Justice Act.
"The state is resorting to all these drastic draconian measures because we don't have a proper support system in place basically," she states.
The conviction rate under our current laws is worryingly low and increased punishment is unlikely to increase convictions, as Kushi points out.
What is needed are trained and sensitised judges and strong investigative processes that can help survivors get justice.
The government's one-dimensional approach also reflects its inaction in the prevention of child sexual abuse in the country.
Swagata says, "If we really want to do something to address violence against children, prevention is one way to go about it. But there are no central or state level action plans with respect to prevention. Where is safety education in schools? The other is to ensure that there is a strong witness protection programme. In most cases I've looked at, children turn hostile because there is just no support to the family and the child. Without these, we cannot achieve much."
With IANS inputs