The National Commission for Women and Children has called for harsher penalty to sexual offenders.

It has its reasons. A review of sexual assault cases from 2009-2020 showed that every week, a woman or a child was sexually assaulted. Of the 530 cases, 70 percent is rape of children. The numbers are worrying.

What is as disturbing, the Commission’s analysis has found is that 71 percent of the perpetrators were given the minimum punishment of which 81 percent for no particular reason and for the rest, the mitigating circumstances was taken into consideration based on the fact that the perpetrator had no previous criminal record.

These statistics tell us that our women and children are not safe, at home or in our society. And the complacency in the law compounds a situation that is already grave. Of the 45 cases of rape of minors the commission reviewed, most perpetrators received minimum sentencing for no definite reason or for lack of past criminal records.

We are a society that pursues progress through the wellbeing of its people. Yet we tolerate heinous crimes against women and children.

NCWC’s call is thus, timely if not already late. Our parliamentarians will soon meet for the winter session where among others, the Penal Code of Bhutan will be tabled for discussion. The issue on the safety of our women and children merits attention and must be given priority.

However, members of the National Assembly already met earlier this month and following an, ‘intense emotional debate’ it decided to retain the clauses of sexual assaults as it is and not enhance the sentencing as proposed by the National Council.

According to the MPs, if the objective of the law is to punish the offender and deter others, past records indicate that enhancing sentencing did not work. They argue that the Penal Code was amended in 2011 with enhanced sentencing for sexual offenders.

That our NA members also discussed about who should be blamed for rape, a common occurrence today and blamed women for being sexually assaulted show that our elected leaders have no understanding of the problem or the solution. As legislators, they make laws and table issues of national concern. Their belief that the laws they make do not deter or have an impact on the people questions their role as legislators.

The joint committee on the Penal Code of Bhutan would meet again to decide whether to discuss the disputed clauses. But the discussions held to date indicate that the safety and protection of our women and children is not a priority.

We have the data and the call for more effective strategies and interventions in reducing and preventing such offences. Strong laws are a good start but on its own not enough to prevent a crime.

Be it in plans, policies and laws, Bhutan has always faltered with their implementation. The issue of sexual assault against women and children is as much a case of weak implementation as it is about weak laws. We need social workers, police personnel, prosecutors and court officials, who are committed to ensure justice.

The Commission has called for harsher penalty and strong laws. It is time we listen and go beyond the rhetoric of committing to protect our women and children. It is time to act.