Every rape is so alarming, death penalty is appropriate: Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi
Maneka tells The New Indian Express that if the provision for death to rapists of minors below 12 years does not act as a deterrent, someone wiser than her would step in.
Maneka Gandhi has been the only Union Women and Child Development Minister in the Modi government so far. Her tenure has seen the launch of crucial women and children-centric schemes as well as controversies sparked by her frank remarks. In an interview with The New Indian Express, she talks of her achievements, constraints and more.
What do you consider your biggest achievements in the last four years and what have been the biggest challenges?
We have done a great deal of work but the biggest thing we have done is to make the ministry a powerful tool for the protection of women... Over the last four years, every time somebody comes up with a good idea or proposes an area in which women need help, we have adopted it immediately. We have been doing two things — policymaking, which also pushes other ministries, and looking at individual cases of suffering. For me, both components are equally important.
I started off with small things... as the ministry was simply a post office for paying Anganwadi workers at that time. We could not increase salaries, so we gave them insurance, we gave them promotion options, we started building better centres and we took the help of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But we did a lot more and I will mainly focus on protection of women because that’s what agonises us the most. Every rape in India is so alarming for me to even though I do not speak about it publicly. So, I keep looking at ways to institutionalise the defence framework.
The first thing we did was to increase the percentage of women in the police and that was mandated at 33 per cent by the Ministry of Home Affairs at our asking. Then we thought of introducing panic buttons on mobile phones — something that no country in the world has, but it took us four years to get going. We started one-stop centres for women affected by violence and we paid for this from the Nirbhaya fund, which had not been utilised before I came. We have also acted as and when required, by the situation. For instance, when the Kathua incident happened (an eight-year-old girl was brutally raped and killed in Jammu), I was among the first to demand a death penalty.
The Prime Minister was good enough to call a special meeting and approve an ordinance for prescribing capital punishment for rapists of minors. But it also occurred to me that if we expedite the cases, it will scare rapists more, and we thought of setting up forensic labs, especially for rapes. One such lab has already been started in Chandigarh and five more will come up soon. Likewise, we have taken various other steps for the welfare of women.
The government changed laws to make provision for death penalty for rapists of children below 12 years. However, a wide section of activists believe that instead of acting as a deterrent, it will lead to more killings after rapes. Some even say it was a knee-jerk reaction after the Kathua incident...
One of the first things I did after becoming the minister was to change the Juvenile Justice Act (making provision for treating minors between 16-18 as adults for heinous crimes) but many protested it back then too. But as a result, we have caught hundreds of 16-year-olds employed by gangs, and even terrorists, to do their work as they were let off easily.
So the death penalty is simply another deterrent, but if we can get courts to act faster and forensic examinations are better, rape cases will come down. The objective is important here — to put a stop on sexual aggression on women and children. There is an argument that provision for the death penalty will lead to more killings after rapes — and that could be a valid one. But there is no study one way or the other. Let’s wait and see how this goes.
Are you saying that there could be a review of the decision?
The government is a constantly changing thing. At the moment, the death penalty is appropriate — if it does not play out the way we want it, which is to deter crime on women, then I am sure somebody wiser than me will step in. It was not a knee-jerk reaction by the government, the whole country demanded it. The kind of anger it created — it was like the Nirbhaya case in many ways.
And Nirbhaya did not generate anger once but twice — the second time when the juvenile (convicted in the case) was let off after three years in jail. He is a free man today and we do not know where he is. If we had a registry of sexual offenders that I have been asking for all these years, we would have at least known where he was. I persuaded the home ministry for four years for this, and now they have agreed for the registry.
There are many who say that many of the ministry’s decisions are taken only after the PMO’s approval...
The PM is the head of the government. It is his right to take whatever decision is the best for the country.