Kerala’s recent response to sexual crimes has been two-fold and ridiculous. First, Governor P Sathasivam announced on Thursday, 23 February, that the state will soon start a public registry of sex offenders — a move that seems to be an immediate response to the anger surrounding the abduction and sexual assault of a Kerala actor. Second, the incident has also inspired the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) to issue guidelines for women’s safety, with idiotic gems like the suggestion that female actors should never, ever travel alone anywhere, day or night.
Let’s look at the sex offenders registry idea. While the governor did mention that the registry would be open to the public, he has not, of course, provided further details about how exactly it would work. Nineteen countries in the world, such as Canada, Ireland, Jamaica and the United Kingdom, maintain sex offender registries that contain the identification details, photographs, employment details and current known addresses of convicted offenders—and are accessible only by law enforcement. The United States, Maldives and South Korea are the only countries where these details can be accessed by anyone in the public through registry websites.
A similar demand in India is not entirely new. Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Women & Child Development, vehemently asked for a registry to be created in January 2017 following the case of a paedophile who reportedly targeted 500 children in Delhi. Her proposal, unlike Kerala’s, awaits approval from the Home Ministry.
All this begs the question — just how effective are public sex offender registries?
Judging from studies undertaken in the United States, public sex offender registries have a negligible and sometimes even opposite effect than intended—the frequency of crimes reported does not reduce, while also gravely affecting the offenders’ prospects of rehabilitation. Keeping in mind that rehabilitation is one of the primary purposes of legal punishment, making such a registry public would lead to the complete shunning of convicted offenders from society, making it nearly impossible for offenders to re-integrate themselves back into normal life. This also flies in the face of accepted principles of justice and could possibly contribute to recidivism in itself.
Having public sex offender registries mandated by law creates special legal treatment for one kind of crime, thereby separating it from other equally, if not more, heinous crimes like murder. Creating a separate legal category for rape crimes also feeds into patriarchal narratives that treat rape as an affront to dignity, and as something worse than death.
Moreover, the move also provides an insight into the framework through which sex crimes are understood in India. Given her own previous comments on why marital rape should not be considered a crime in India, it becomes clear that Gandhi, like many other people, sees a particular image when she imagines the person who commits sexual assault: A faceless stranger lurking in a dark, deserted street. This is simply not the reality of sexual assault in India, and painting it in this way diverts our attention from other areas that merit it.
Around 90 percent of the rapes in India are committed by people known to the victim. Choosing public sex offender registries as the course of action against sexual assault frames these crimes in the public imagination as something that happens removed from us and our homes. It creates a false sense of security by shifting our attention to something that happens outside the house by strangers we don’t know about, when this isn’t true.
What happens if we reverse the argument? Let’s say that there is a sex offender registry out there. How exactly does it help? Having a registry would help in identifying the accused, especially if they fear retribution. It might be a welcome move as a law-enforcement tool, but restrictive impositions like reporting to the police about their every move, denying them employment, a decent place to live—in short, ostracizing them from society—will make them more likely to turn to crime again (not necessarily rape).
Sex offender registries as a legal mechanism also make the disturbing and incorrect assumption that “once a rapist, always a rapist”. This attitude treats sex offenders as a special category of criminal who can never be integrated back into society after they’ve paid their debt to it through incarceration, making it seem as though they have a lifelong disposition towards rape that we as a society have no other tools to address.
A registry like this is anyway a red herring we’re being asked to chase, given that both the number of cases reported and conviction rates for sexual assault in India are notoriously low, as The Ladies Finger found. A tiny number of sexual offenders actually find their way into the criminal justice system in the first place – and correcting this is where we should be focusing our energies.
We should be focusing on other initiatives as well, such as educating men and boys on issues of entitlement, control and consent, re-evaluating the media’s vicious-cycle portrayal of rapists as strangers and victims as weak and helpless, and preventing public figures from saying obnoxious things about rape that fuel the very forces that cause it. Actions like creating public sex offender registries direct our attention away from attacking rape culture and reducing instances of rape from occurring in the first place.
Human Rights Watch, in its 2007 US-focused report titled No Easy Answers, says that public access to sex offender registries “exposes former sex offenders to the risk that individuals will act on this information in irresponsible and even unlawful ways”. Just consider the number of politicians, such as Raj Thackeray and Uma Bharti, who have publicly and popularly called for rapists to be tortured.
Instead of calling for public sex offender registries (or vigilante justice), what might prove more effective in the long run is keener law enforcement, swifter legal justice and a culture that doesn’t tolerate rape and violence against women.
Co-published with Firstpost.