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Global Ethics Corner: Sexual Violence in India: From Punishment to Deterrence

January 14, 2013

The brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old college student in India’s capital has sparked global outrage and national soul-searching. But nowhere has the horror been more deeply felt than in New Delhi itself, where news of the deadly gang rape has led to weeks of protest and promises of swift retribution. For many, the punishment of choice is obvious: death.

But for all the talk of punishment, a more important conversation is underwaythis one focused on deterrence. Across India, women’s rights advocates say their country must embrace a long-term process of societal transformation if other rapes are to be deterred. Experts say that at the core of this transformation lie two things: the rule of law and family honor.

Rape is a crime in India, but it’s rarely prosecuted. That’s in part because of problems with India’s sexual assault laws, which critics say are too narrow. But it’s also because many officials refuse to enforce existing legislation.  Too often, judges hand down lenient sentences, and police side with perpetrators, not victims.

Many feminists believe the roots of the problem run even deeper. They say most victims don’t press charges not simply because they fear impunity for their attackers, but because they feel ashamed. In many parts of India, rape is regarded as an attack, not just on a woman’s security, but on her family’s honor. Rape victims are asked to focus not on repairing their own mental and physical health, but on sparing their families further indignity. Many victims are thus forced to marry their rapists. Far too often, this means that India’s women find solace not in the law, but in suicide.  

As Indians ponder the punishment of the ‘Delhi Gang’ rapists, what do you think? What steps can India take to deter rape both in the short and long term?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Tehelka Bureau, "‘Freedom without fear is what we need to protect, to guard and respect,’" Tehelka.com, December 21, 2012

Sunil Kilnani, "If we truly want to learn from the Delhi gang rape, we will dig to the roots of the problem," The Times of India, January 3, 2012

"Rape and murder in Delhi," The Economist, January 5, 2013

"Three Delhi gang rape suspects to plead not guilty," BBC News, January 8, 2012

Naomi Wolf, "Ending India's Rape Culture," Al Jazeera English, January 3, 2012

Sohaila Abdulali, "I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn’t," The New York Times, January 7, 2013

Nita Bhalla, "In India, rapists walk free as victims 'shamed' into suicide," Reuters, September 25, 2012


Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:
Ramesh Lalwani [also for pictures 2, 4, 5, 9, and 13]
Ben Sutherland
Tom Spender
Tine Steiss
Sthitaprajna Jena
Louis Vest [also for picture 11]
Shreyans Bhansali

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