A spate of child rapes in Malaysia this year has fuelled demands for the death penalty but human rights activists say hanging the rapists will not be a deterrent, as the main causes - cheap illegal drugs, poverty and rural unemployment - remain unresolved. The government says calls for the death sentence reflects the new 'reality and gravity' of child rapes but officials are divided. 'The rapist must know that the death penalty is there,' Law Minister Rais Yatim said. 'Rights groups who oppose are not living in the real world.' But Women and Welfare Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil believes the bigger challenge is to prevent child rape and - when it happens - ensure the police are tough on the offender and show compassion towards the victim. Death penalty advocates say the current penalty for rape - whipping and a jail term of between five and 20 years - is 'light' and contributes to the upsurge in child rape. 'Child rape is heinous, grotesque, despicable and subjects infants to abuse, torture and death,' medical doctor Anamalai Soorian said. 'The death penalty is best because death itself is final.' In a recent letter to The Star newspaper, a mother cited several shocking cases of child rapes throughout the country and urged the government to act. 'Are our lawmakers hearing the cries for immediate and drastic action to safeguard our children?' she wrote. But human rights activists like Sinnappan Arulchelvam say higher penalties rarely address the main causes of young sex crimes. 'Most child rapes occur in extended, rural families where poverty and unemployment are endemic and unemployed youths fall prey to cheap synthetic drugs. 'Lawmakers have to be sensible and listen to the experts and not play to the gallery,' he said, adding that social and psychological measures must be considered to overcome the poverty, drug abuse and sense of hopelessness that afflict unemployed youths. 'If current penalties don't deter child rape, tougher penalties will not either,' he said. Rights activists add that four decades of hanging drug pushers and rehabilitating addicts in military-style 'cold-turkey' camps have not reduced drug addiction. In fact, drug abuse has increased, along with the spread of HIV/Aids because of needle-sharing. University lecturer Gill Raja said the death penalty could worsen the situation. 'Offenders, facing the death sentence, would kill their young victims for fear the crime would be reported to police.'