Sex Offender Registry is Not Enough to Curb Sexual Violence Against Women

Protesters gather at a candlelight vigil in New Delhi. Credit: Sujoy Dhar/IPS

By Elsa D’Silva and Quratulain Fatima
Oct 15 2018 (IPS)

India recently launched a sex offender registry to deter sex offenders from perpetrating crimes against women and children by indicating that the government is keeping track of them. The personal details of 440,000 sex offenders who have been convicted for various crimes like “eve-teasing”, child sexual abuse, rape and gang rape will be registered in this database and accessible to law enforcement.

The creation of the registry is hailed by many as a welcome move in India, where violence against women and girls is pandemic. Recently, the Thomson Reuters Survey stated that India is the most dangerous country in the world with regards to sexual violence. From the start of this year, there has been a series of gang rapes of little girls ranging from babies to teenagers in all parts of the country –  NorthSouth, WestNorthEast and Central India

Neighbouring country Pakistan does not have a sex offender registry but is equally bad when it comes to violence against women and sex offences. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in Pakistan an incident of rape occurs every two hours and 70 percent of women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime by their intimate partners and 93 percent women experience some form of sexual violence in public places in their lifetime.

Measures to prevent sex offenses are needed in both countries and each country can learn from each other’s successful prevention programs. However, only workable solutions should be replicated, and a sex offender registry is not one.

Evidence suggests that sex offender registries have failed to reduce sex crimes and have made rehabilitation of offenders difficult. In fact, registries might work for other forms of crime but not for the sexually deviant

Sex offender registries exist in many countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Israel and the Republic of Ireland. Sexual violence is a problem in each of those countries, too, but studies have shown that sex offender registries have little or no effect on crime prevention or recidivism. Furthermore, evidence from these countries suggests that sex offender registries have failed to reduce sex crimes and have made rehabilitation of offenders difficult. In fact, registries might work for other forms of crime but not for the sexually deviant.

Further, we think making the details public, which is how it works in the United States and is what some people in India want, is dangerous as it would further increase the risk for women and girls rather than protect them. Though the government has assured that the registry would have multiple layers of security, there are doubts that the names and identities of the victims would be revealed. The Indian authorities are planning to link the details of the perpetrators to the Aadhar database which has biometric information of the person. Reports have indicated that the Aadhar database is itself not secure and for as little as $8 one can access personal information of people.

Moreover, Googling and knowing that a sex offender lives next door does not ensure that you can google your way to safety since safety from sex offences entail more than sex offender registration laws and a registry. Research shows that most sex offenders are relatives or people known to their victims but systems that put in place sex offender registry assume that sex offenders are strangers.

Many sex offenders are not even reported – particularly in South Asia due to the cultural stigma, faulty police procedures and lengthy court cases – and they aren’t included on any registration/notification system.

Instead of implementing a sex offender registry and seeing that as a solution, more efforts should focus on addressing the underlying issues, like patriarchy and improving the effectiveness of the justice system. Specifically, we recommend the governments of India and Pakistan concentrate on the following measures:

  • Sex education in school curriculum to educate people about sex offences and teach them ways to have responsible, healthy and consensual relationships.
  • Advocacy efforts to break down social taboos around this topic and make it easier to discuss and have a dialogue in the family and community about sex offences.
  • Allocation of public resources toward the rehabilitation of sex offenders with a high risk of repeating their crimes. Research suggests that psychological treatment and cognitive behavioural treatment can reduce recidivism amongst sex offenders.
  • Including women in all policy formulation, including the passage of any relevant laws. They are the stakeholders most at risk of sexual violence and they are in a better position to provide guidelines for policies aiming to stop sex offences.
  • Training police officers to be sensitive to the needs of victim and knowledgeable about the relevant laws so they can be a resource to individuals who want to report crimes. For example, Sweden has a high reporting of sexual violence because the creation of a strong eco-system, a feminist mindset and sensitive police have made it easier to break the silence.
  • Ensuring quick and swift punishment for convicted sex offenses. Long court cases in the face of lingering social stigma puts many victims off reporting sex offences. Policy makers must take a hands-on approach to swiftly dispense justice in sex offences.

Elsa D’Silva is the Founder and CEO of Red Dot Foundation (Safecity) and works on women’s rights issues in India. She is a 2018 Yale World Fellow and a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow  her on Twitter, @elsamariedsilva. 

Quratulain Fatima is a policy practitioner working extensively in rural and conflict-ridden areas of Pakistan with a focus on gender inclusive development and conflict prevention. She is a 2018 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter, @moodee_q.