Putting the guilty to death would be a step backwards for India, and do nothing to address its real problems

This tragic case must bring about a sea change in attitudes to womens' rights

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The heart-breaking case of the 23-year-old woman attacked, raped and left for dead on 16 December by six men in Delhi acted as a touchpaper for people across India - who have turned out en masse to call for justice.

Her case has provoked thousands upon thousands of Indians - male and female, young and old - to reflect on the treatment of women and the violence to which they are subjected. They are demanding a sea change in attitudes and protections with an unprecedented determination. It is so often the case that from tragedy comes a tenacity which you could not imagine provoked by any other means. Yet if the call for change for women and girls is the silver lining to the horror, then there is also a worrying by-product of the clamour to see justice done - that is the call for the use of the death penalty.

It is always the most horrific and sickening cases that prompt the loudest call for the use of the death penalty – that applies here in the UK, no less than in countries which still officially execute, no matter how infrequently.

Up until 21 November 2012, when the lone surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Ajmal Kasab, was hanged, India had not carried out a single execution for almost eight years. Kasab’s killing meant India took a significant step backwards and joined the minority of countries in the world that are still executing. In the context of the recent resumption of the use of the death penalty, it might seem unlikely that the government there would oppose a public baying for vengeance – but submitting to calls for the noose would not only be to answer one brutality with another, it would also ignore the real problem.

This rape and murder did not happen because the death penalty was not used enough, it happened for a myriad of reasons – foremost of which are prevalent attitudes to women.

What India needs now is not revenge, but to address the many underlying issues that are perpetuating endemic violence against women. The laws and the justice system have to be reformed, including amending the definition of rape, which is currently far from adequate. The woefully low conviction rate for these crimes must also be addressed, as today it only perpetuates a culture of impunity.

The Indian police force has to be better trained to deal with victims of sexual violence, and there is a need to develop support systems for survivors. Many women are reluctant to report crimes, fearing humiliation and degrading treatment by the police, and indeed by society more generally. There are also still serious systematic failures in the Indian justice system that prevent fair trials.

What is happening in India now is a completely understandable outpouring of grief and anger. The test is how the authorities respond to these calls. If these men are found guilty and put to death, then any sense of catharsis would be illusory. If this case, however, provokes the dawn of a new era of rights and safeguards for women and girls, then India could yet grasp some triumph from this utter tragedy.

Kate Allen is the director of Amnesty International UK.

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