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