Special Report

Outcry after rape of Indian girl aged 16 triggers calls for reduction in age of consent

 

Hisar


For a full ten days after she was abducted and raped by a group of
 men, the teenager told no-one, terrified by the men’s threats 
and their claim that they would distribute photographs they had
 taken during the attack.

When she did eventually tell her mother,
 things got even worse; her father, a gardener, unable to bear the
 trauma of what had happened to his daughter and the indignity of such
 photographs being passed around, swallowed pesticide.


In the following days, police arrested and charged seven men, all 
members of a higher caste. But the response to what took place by 
certain elements of society – a suggestion that the age of marriage
 should be be lowered to reduce rapes, and that such attacks were 
triggered by eating ‘Western’ fast-food – sparked both a wave of
 anger and a debate about India’s attitudes towards women that has
 gripped the country


Today, the 16-year-old sits with her hands quietly folded on the edge 
of a bed in a relative’s house, reaching for courage amid this
 bewildering storm. She says she is determined to obtain justice. “It’s
 not just about me. Things have been happening in other villages,” she 
said.


The story of the attack on the teenager is one that exposes many of
 the often-overlapping faultlines within India’s still predominantly 
rural society. The young woman’s family are Dalits, traditionally 
located at the very bottom of Hindu society where they suffer 
widespread discrimination. In the girl’s village, Dabra, located 10
 miles from Hisar in the state of Haryana, most of her extended family
 and neighbours worked as landless labourers.


Her alleged attackers, by contrast, were Jats, a higher caste that is 
common in many north Indian states and are often land-owners. In
 Dabra, said the senior village official, all the land is owned by
 Jats.


Campaigners say Dalits often suffer violent assault and that Dalit
 women are the most vulnerable. They claim the situation is
 particularly bad in rural Haryana, relatively prosperous and located
 close to the national capital, but where strict patriarchal and 
conservative attitudes often clash with demands for change.

The state
 has the country’s worst gender ratio, with just 830 girls for 1,000
 boys because of the illegal but widespread use of pre-natal sex
 selection and female foeticide.


The attitudes were revealed, say campaigners, by the response of many of those from
 Haryana to the rape of the young woman from Dabra and other similar
 cases, highlighted by the subsequent media attention.

One local leader, Jitender Chhatar,  a member of a so-called khap
 panchyatt, or unelected village council claimed: “Consumption of fast
 food contributes to such incidents. Chowmein leads to hormonal 
imbalance, evoking an urge to indulge in such acts.  You also know the
 impact of chowmein, which is a spicy food, on our body.”


Meanwhile, the state’s former chief minister, Om Prakash Chautala, of
 the  Indian National Lok Dal, an ally of the main national
 opposition, told local media he supported another 
recommendation from a khap panchyatt which claimed lowering the 
marriage age to 15 would also reduce the number of rapes. “In the past, 
especially in Mughal era, people used to marry their daughters early
 to save them from such atrocities. Currently a situation of similar
 kind is arising in Haryana,” he said.


The village of Dabra is made of narrow alleyways, where farm animals 
are tethered and open-drains run along the sides of the tracks. The
 Jat area, with its cement roads and large houses is noticeably
 wealthier then the cluster of Dalit streets. “There is a difference in
 everything – electricity supply, water, the streets, the entire
 infrastructure,” said the young woman.


While she and her family have moved to the house of an aunt in 
Hisar, an uneasy calm hangs about her village. Few people are keen to 
speak about the situation. A policeman sits on guard outside the
 family home. “The police have been here ever since this happened,”
said one middle-aged Dalit woman, Chameli, who said she was a cousin 
of the teenager’s father. “The Jats have been 
saying things like ‘You have done this to our community, you have 
betrayed us. Do not enter out fields’.”


The young woman from Dabra harboured ambitions to become the first 
member of her family to attend college. She has been studying 
economics, Sanskrit and history. Yet despite her ambitions – or
 perhaps because of them - she found herself rebuffed by those who did
 not want to see either Dalits or women progress in society.


Many in the community considered her family “untouchable” and would 
not share food, drinking water or even utensils with them. “On
 Tuesdays [a day associated with worship of the god Hanuman], they
 would not sell milk to us,” she added, dressed in a white and yellow,
 traditional long-sleeved shirt.


The elected head villager, a woman called Maya Devi whose husband’s 
name, and not her’s, appears on the council’s office building, denied 
claims from the teenager’s family that pressure had been exerted to 
try and make them drop the case, including the offer of payments.
 “The fact is they have got people,” she said. “The case has been
 filed with the police. There is no way it cannot go to court.”


Media reports quoting figures from the National Crime Records Bureau
suggest that the number of reported rapes in Haryana increased
 from 386 in 2004 to 733 in 2011. There is a conviction rate of 13 per 
cent.

In the month since the attack in Dabra on September 9, the media 
has reported at least a dozen rapes, many of them gang-rapes. In one 
incident in the town of Jind, a 16-year-old Dalit girl set herself on fire after being assaulted.  “I criticise in the strongest
 terms these kind of incidents. The guilty should get the severest 
punishment,” Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party,
 said when she visited the family.


Yet campaigners say cases are routinely settled before they reach the
 courts. “The laws are there on paper but on the ground there is
impunity,” said Asha Kotwal, of the National Campaign on Dalit Human
 Rights. “There has to be stringent implementation of laws – that will 
give a strong message that these things cannot happen.”


In the Dabra case, the local police, many of whom are members of the
 Jat community,  have been accused of inaction. The 
family of the girl said the police declined to file 
charges until relatives refused to take the father’s body home from
 the mortuary for cremation. Several of those eventually arrested came
 from families of local politicians.


The Superintendent of police for Hisar, Satheesh Balan, said the young
 woman did not come forward for ten days and that details of her
 statement changed. He said there had been a 15 per cent reduction
 in reported rapes in Haryana but said his own district had seen a 
slight increase.

Last year, there were 38 rapes of which 28 involved
 people of the same caste.


Having questioned the accused, he said he did not believe the attack
 was a caste-related crime. “When they committed the crime, they did 
not know the caste of the girl,” he said.


Meanwhile, the young woman is somehow trying to think of
 the future. She has enrolled in a new school and in recent days began classes. “The community has already 
forwarded demands to the government,” she added. “One is that I be 
given a job so I can manage for myself.”


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