Add to sex offenders register those who frustrate reporting of offenders

The law is getting tougher on offenders in certain criminal offences. Sex offenders, especially rapists and defilers, have been put on notice: If found guilty, their names will be published for all to see. There will be a register of such offenders to which everyone will have access.

The minister of justice said a public registry should lead to a reduction in such crimes by acting as a deterrent to future wrongdoers, helping to track repeat offenders and aiding in their behaviour change to decent, law-abiding individuals.

 

The proposed measure to expose sex criminals has been received well by the majority of Rwandans. There are, however, others who think it is rather harsh and may not achieve the desired results. But all agree that something has to be done urgently, particularly about the rising number of cases of defilement.

 

The statistics paint a grim picture. The number of underage girls getting pregnant has been rising steadily over the last few years. In 2018 alone, they were reported to be 19,832. The figure for 2020 is likely to be much higher.

 

So will the threat to publish names of offenders do the trick and turn them away from evil and on to the straight and narrow path? Probably. Certainly worth giving it a try. And there are indications from Rwandans’ attitude to private space that it may just work.

Rwandans generally prize their privacy. They like doing a lot of things in private, behind closed doors or high walls. You see this in their settlements, the obsession with ibipangu (high walls) and other kinds of enclosures.

There is, of course, a history to homestead enclosures. In the past they served a functional security purpose. They kept people and their livestock safe from marauding wild animals and cattle-rustlers. Today’s enclosures are more of a status symbol or simply a relic from the past.

You notice this privacy with regard to meals. They are usually taken indoors, away from the uninvited passer-by or the prying eyes of a gossipy neighbour. Eating in public, in the open, was and still is considered bad manners.

Some of you might recall that when the then Caisse Sociale Du Rwanda, now Rwanda Social Security Board (RSSB) put houses in the Gacuriro Estate on the market, they attracted negative comments, mainly around their supposed inadequate privacy. Some people said they did not like the idea of a neighbour looking into their kitchen and getting to know what they were going to have for dinner.

Rwandans also care about reputation, their standing among peers and society in general. Faced with their misdeeds being brought into the open, they will beg and plead and offer anything to avoid public exposure and humiliation.

So targeting these two, privacy and reputation, that touch on the things they value, and threatening them with disclosure might just work and achieve some positive behaviour change.

Until now, a prison term, removal from society and denial of certain rights for a while was thought to be enough deterrent. But clearly that has not been the case. Public ridicule that convicted offenders will have to live with for the rest of their lives together with a prison term might prove a stronger deterrent.

The notion that shame will prevent crime is, of course, based on the assumption that offenders are normal people with a moral sense and integrity to protect. Many are. But those who defile toddlers and even babies are not normal and cannot be subjected to or benefit from normal standards of correction. Perhaps the ministry of justice will devise punishment befitting the actions of depraved people.

While naming and shaming may be an effective crime prevention measure, it will only be for those who have been reported, tried and convicted, and sentenced. It does not address the bigger issue of who the perpetrators of sex crimes are and why many of them are not reported.

Three categories of people make reporting and therefore punishment difficult.

The first are close relatives who are the majority of culprits. The matter is often hushed up and handled within the family so as not to bring shame to it. The reputation or ‘honour’ of the family becomes more important than the rights, well-being and future of the victim.

The second category of offenders are neighbours. They are not reported because it is said this will affect neighbourly relations. In a rural setting these do actually matter and so the victim is sacrificed for maintaining social relations.

The third are those with authority over the victim. These include teachers, pastors, employers, government officials, and even parents. Normally these should be the first people to protect the young girls and to whom they should report. Instead, they use their power and trust both to commit the offence and to threaten victims against reporting the matter. In any case allegations of abuse against these supposedly upright people, models of behaviour and pillars of society in their localities are unlikely to be believed.

Perhaps the minister of justice might also consider setting up a public register for those who prevent the reporting of sex offences especially when they have the obligation to do so. 

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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