Another gruesome gang-rape in India has made headlines around the world. This time the victim was a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district. But as women and activists took to Indian streets in protest and political parties seized the opportunity to call out their rivals, another rape took place 500kms away in Balrampur.
The widespread outrage is reminiscent of 2012, where the victim who came to be known as Nirbhaya (fearless) was brutalized in Delhi. The whole world was horrified, and India promised to do better by its girls and women. Yet eight years later sexual violence appears to continue unabated.
According to local media the teenage victim’s family found her naked, bleeding, and paralyzed, with a split tongue and a broken spine in a field outside their home. She died two weeks later, on Tuesday, after battling serious injuries in a hospital in New Delhi. The perpetrators, in this case all upper caste men, are said to be in police custody. The family alleges that police cremated her body without their consent. Local media corroborated their story adding that both journalists and her family were kept away from the funeral pyre. Why the police did this is open to interpretation.
In a country where a rape occurs every 15 minutes and the verdict in the Nirbhaya case took seven years, one can expect the violence against women to continue. Most sexual assaults go unreported because the wheels of justice are too slow to act. Trials are traumatic for victims and resolution of cases can take a decade. In many situations, police are unlikely to even register the case. Often victims are as afraid of the police as the perpetrators. And if the aggressors are people in power, then chances of getting justice are negligible, if at all.
The rape of an 86-year-old woman in Delhi and an 8-year-old in UP’s Azamgarh district this month shows females of all ages are victims of sexual abuse.
Given what is at stake it is almost impossible for any woman to be ‘Nirbhaya’ (meaning fearless) in India. From a young age, girls are warned about this gruesome possibility. The abuser could be anyone… a relative, neighbour, teacher, security guard, boss, colleague, the list is endless. In fact, the 2018 annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) revealed that 93.9% of the cases are committed by perpetrators known to the victim.
Dalit women, considered the lowest rung of Indian society, have always suffered at the hands of landlords, local politicians, the police and even their families. People in power use rape as a weapon to teach Dalit families a lesson, shame them or crush any rebellion. Often the girls and women are raped while in police custody. Data suggests that over four Dalit women are raped everyday and there are multiple instances of rape by the same individual or others. With only a fraction of cases being reported for fear of repercussion, the real numbers are much higher.
Sadly, rape is one of the fastest growing crimes in India with the National Crime Records Bureau reporting in 2019 that the number of attacks doubled in the 17 years between 2001 and 2017. The same data showed that every fourth rape victim in India in 2018 was a minor.
It is for this reason that most Indian parents will not send their daughters out without a chaperone.
It is ironic, even shameful, that a land which worships Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth), Saraswati (the goddess of learning), Parvati (the goddess of love and devotion) and Durga (a form of Parvati and the goddess of strength) disrespects and abuses its women. Female infanticide, honour killings, dowry, and rape show that gender equality and women’s empowerment are a long time coming.
India must know that to be a respected country, it must respect its girls and women. Travel advisories warning women about sexual violence in the country are hardly an endorsement of its welcoming culture and superpower status.