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India launches first sex offenders register amid spate of rapes

Officials say the database will be accessible only to law enforcement agencies but critics fear it might be misused.

India has launched its first national register of sex offenders in a bid to stem crimes against women as the country reels from a series of high-profile rape cases.

The database will be accessible only to law enforcement agencies and not to the public, with 440,000 names registered, including those convicted of rape, gang rape, child sex crimes and sexual harassment, according to a home ministry statement late on Thursday.

It will also provide their photos, addresses and fingerprints, without compromising "any individual's privacy".

"The National Database on Sexual Offenders (NDSO) ... will assist in effectively tracking and investigating cases of sexual offences," the ministry said.

The register comes as a spate of sexual assault cases have rocked the country, which was named the most dangerous in the world for women by experts in a survey published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in June.

Women's rights activist Kavita Krishnan said it was a decision driven by "moral panic".

The idea of a register arises from a misplaced notion that rapists are usually strangers which is not true

Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women's Association

"A sex offenders register will not check sexual assaults in a country like India, where conviction rates of rapes are very low," said Krishnan, Secretary of All India Progressive Women's Association.

"The idea of a register arises from a misplaced notion that rapists are usually strangers which is not true. Most sexual violence perpetrators are known to the victim, most often someone within the family.

"It is a decision driven by moral panic and not a studied and researched response based on recommendations from women rights groups," she added.

Recent sex crimes

Earlier this week, police arrested the principal and four staff members of a boarding school in northern India over the rape of a teenage student.

Police said they arrested four male students for the rape, which left the girl pregnant. The school staff are accused of destroying evidence and covering up the crime.

In southern Kerala state, protests and calls grew this week for the arrest of a bishop accused of repeatedly raping a nun over a period of two years.

In August, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh rescued 20 girls and three boys from a home where they were sold for sex.

That raid came just weeks after police rescued nearly 30 girls who were sexually assaulted and tortured at a shelter in Bihar state.

The urgency to establish a sex offenders register gained momentum following a nationwide outcry over the rape and murder of a Muslim girl in a Hindu-dominated area of Indian-administered Kashmir earlier this year.

The accused, all Hindus, are currently on trial.

Death penalty

The case prompted the government to approve the death penalty for the rape of girls under 12, and to increase the prison term for the rape of older girls and women.

Despite various measures, India's rape epidemic has shown no sign of dying down. More than 100 cases were reported daily in India in 2016, the latest government data shows.

Vijaya Rahatkar, National President of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party women's cell, dubbed the database an "invaluable tool".

"Coupled with India's Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, this register will be an invaluable tool in the hands of law enforcement to crackdown on rapists," Rahatkar, National President of the BJP women's cell, said.

"Now all data of sex offenders will be available centrally which will be a big help. We are confident this comprehensive measure will reduce cases of sexual assaults," she said.

An op-ed piece in the Hindustan Times newspaper on Friday called the new sex offenders register "timely", but worried the government could overreach and misuse data, and warned it "may tarnish a person's life forever if he is reformed".

Many countries, such as the United States, Britain and South Africa keep a record of people who have been convicted of sexual offences such as paedophilia and rape.

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