The public is angry and rightly so. The rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl on a night train by a rail worker is not only shocking because of its brutality. It has shaken society to the core because it underscores the perpetual danger girls and women face from all forms of sexual violence — and the total breakdown in the system to provide safety or to punish perpetrators.
The horrific crime has triggered a furious online campaign to impose the death penalty for rapists. The petitioners think convicted rapists serve too short a time in prison thanks to the parole system. Many come out to attack women again and killing them will stop the problem, they believe.
Such demands may satisfy the campaigners’ anger. But it will not solve the prevalent crime of rape and sexual violence. Actually, imposing the death penalty might have the opposite effect.
As Muslim rights activist Angkhana Neelapaijit pointed out, imposing the death sentence on rapists is already the norm in many Muslim countries. Yet rape remains prevalent because the patriarchal values that endorse sexual violence against women are simply more powerful than the written law.
Fixing deep-rooted sexist values takes a long time. But this does not mean things cannot be done to make society safer for girls and women.
Well-lit streets and parking lots, and special public transportation services for women to ensure safe trips home are the most basic measures to boost safety, yet they are still largely lacking in Thailand. Strictly screening security guards and patrolling high-risk crime areas can also increase safety for everyone.
Equally important, if not more so, is the support system for victims of sexual violence. These victims must have easy access to sensitive services at hospitals to get evidence of physical attacks and rape. They must also be provided with psychological therapy for the trauma, and legal support to ensure the perpetrators are punished.
The whole judicial procedure must also be revamped to be more sensitive to victims of rape and sexual violence. At present, the burden of proof is on the victims. Yet they face an uphill task to get justice done. From police stations to the courtroom, they must prove they did not “ask for it”, and that it was not consensual sex.
More often than not, the courtroom testimonies are turned into “repeated rapes” by forcing the victims to recount what happened again and again, or by being portrayed as loose women to lessen their credibility. The sexist legal system is one major reason rapists run free, feel emboldened, and continue to be sexual predators.
Should anything in the rape law be amended, it is the three-month statute of limitations. Rapists usually choose victims who are weaker, socially and financially. They use their power and networks to threaten the victims not to press charges. When three months are over, they are free.
Another clause that should be removed is the one that frees rapists of the crime if marriage enters as a solution. This family face-saving measure means subjecting the victims to long-term rape.
The prison system must also set up effective rehabilitation. Without it, prisons only churn out more hardened criminals into society. For convicted rapists, they must be put under follow-up and monitoring systems to prevent repeat crimes.
All these measures are nearly non-existent, not because of a lack of budget or necessary laws. Rather, it is due to lack of understanding of how patriarchy works, how it condones men’s sexual aggression, and how it systematically hurts half of the world's population. It is why we must dismantle sexist cultural values if we want society to be safe for our girls and women.