India is set to introduce the death penalty for people convicted of raping a child under the age of 12.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the executive order on Saturday at an emergency cabinet meeting in response to weeks of outrage over two high-profile assault cases. The order needs to be signed by India's president, Ram Nath Kovind, to take effect.
India already has the death penalty for crimes including murder, kidnapping, terrorism, and treason, and the rape of a child will now be added to that list. The change of law will also mean police have to complete rape investigations within two months, according to the Guardian.
It will also increase the maximum possible prison sentence for the rape of girls under 16 and women but, according to news agency Reuters, there was no mention of assaults on boys or men.
"Government has taken serious note of incidents of rape in various parts of the country," said the document, according to Reuters. "While expressing deep anguish over such incidents, it has been decided to devise a comprehensive response to deal with the situation."
Other steps to tackle the problem include the launch of more fast-track courts for rape cases, more public prosecutors being appointed, and more police stations to be provided with forensic kits for use in the investigation of rape cases.
The Indian government has come under fire in recent weeks, accused of not doing enough to prevent sexual assaults in the country, particularly of children.
Protests erupted in India over the gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl, Asifa Bano, in January in a temple in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Then last week, a member of the governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was accused of the rape of a teenage girl in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
Sexual assault and violence is a serious problem in India, and has shown little sign of dying down despite the launch of fast-track courts and tougher rape law following the assault of a student on a bus in Delhi in 2012 — a case that brought sexual violence in India to global attention.
Nevertheless, there were still 40,000 rapes reported in 2016, according to Reuters. Of these cases, 40% were attacks on children.
The head of Delhi’s Commission for Women, Swati Maliwal, has been one of the leading voices in the call for a law change. She went on hunger strike on April 13, saying she would refuse to eat until India’s rape laws were amended.
Maliwal wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Modi, saying India “should have a system … where anyone who rapes a young girl should be hanged within six months.”
On the same day, Modi said: “I want to assure the country that no culprit will be spared, complete justice will be done. Our daughters will definitely get justice.”
But human rights campaign groups have spoken out against the decision to introduce the death penalty.
Asmita Basu from Amnesty International India described it as “knee-jerk reaction that diverts attention from the poor implementation of laws on rape and child protection.”
“Studies have shown that most perpetrators are known to child victims,” she told the Guardian. “Introducing the death penalty in such circumstances will only silence and further endanger children.”
Only three executions have been recorded in India in the past 10 years, according to the BBC, with 371 prisoners on death row. Those on death row include the four men convicted for the 2012 bus attack in Delhi.
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