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Sentencing rapists to death won't tackle the root cause of sexual violence

"Yes, the perpetrators must be held to account for their sins. But it makes very little sense to punish the perpetrators while continuing to ignore the patriarchal, patronising and demeaning societal framework that creates this criminality."

Drawing parallels between South Africa and India, Desmond and Mpho Tutu argue that capital punishment is not the answer to tackling gender-based violence. First published by the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.

South Africans, grappling to come to terms with deplorable levels of gender-based violence in our society, closely followed the case in New Delhi where four men were sentenced to death on Friday for raping and murdering a young woman last December.

The case mesmerised India. It symbolised systemic gender-based violence in that country, and society’s inability to stop it. It mirrored our situation and our anxieties in South Africa.

In India last year, there were 24,923 cases of rape reported to police, according to government statistics. In South Africa, according to police, 64,514 “sexual crimes” were reported between April 2011 and March 2012 – not all of them rape. It is common cause that many more offences in both countries go unreported.

Six weeks after the New Delhi case garnered international headlines, South African teenager Anene Booysen was brutally raped and murdered in the Southern Cape. Booysen’s alleged killer goes on trial in Swellendam next month, and it comes as no surprise that some are calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in South Africa.

We understand the sentiment that led to the imposition of the death penalty in India. But we cannot applaud the choice.

Let us not be fooled.

Firstly, as a form of punishment, the death penalty is irreversible, inhumane and unjustifiable. It closes the door to the possibilities of discussing, healing, forgiving and reconciling. And its alleged power as a deterrent has never been scientifically proven – a point borne out by the number of rapes in India.

Secondly, in the context of gender violence, the imposition of the death penalty almost feels like a cop-out. It is a simple vengeful response that seems to let society off the hook for having to make a far more difficult choice: actually doing something meaningful about gender-based violence, so that Anene Booysen’s friends – and their children – can live in safety and thrive.

Yes, the perpetrators must be held to account for their sins. But it makes very little sense to punish the perpetrators while continuing to ignore the patriarchal, patronising and demeaning societal framework that creates this criminality.

In South Africa, young men deny that they are rapists even as they admit having forced a woman to have sex against her will. They feel “entitled” to sex because the woman is their girlfriend, wife, subordinate, possession. By this reckoning a woman is not entitled to bodily integrity, ceding that right by the singular fact of being born female.

Let us engage in the difficult discussion about gender reconciliation and address the root cause of the illness rather than having to constantly deal with the symptoms.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. The Reverend Mpho Tutu is the Executive Director of the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.

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