In rural India, rapes are common, but justice for victims is not

Mustafa Quraishi/AP - Members of women’s organizations gathered in October to condemn the rising instances of rape and violence against women in the state of Haryana, India.

The teenage girl was overpowered by four men at a railway crossing near this village and bundled into a car. For five days she was kept, imprisoned and naked, in a windowless outhouse on nearby farmland and raped repeatedly.

Despite its brutality, the September incident merited just a few lines in a domestic news-agency story about a string of such crimes in the northern state of Haryana. It was headlined simply: “Four more rape cases.”

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Thousands of Indians have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the rape of a young woman on a moving bus in New Delhi. But in rural areas just a few hours’ drive from India’s capital, where police and activists say rapes are common and increasing, such incidents draw scarcely any attention, let alone outrage.

(Read: In India, a history of high-profile rapes)

In India’s modernizing but still deeply traditional society, social and women’s rights activists say rapes occur with virtual impunity, and women who betray flickers of independent thought and challenge the male-dominated status quo are especially vulnerable. The problem is particularly acute in impoverished rural India, where women’s families face social pressure not to report rapes, police are apathetic about such crimes, and deep caste inequalities provide cover to men who sexually abuse women of lower standing.

“Women have no respect in the home here; they are basically treated as doormats,” said Suneeta Tyagi, an activist in the Haryana town of Gohana. “Now, there is a growing tribe of young men who have no jobs or education. Nobody wants to marry their daughters off to them. Their frustration results in such heinous crimes.”

The regularity of rapes and the resentment of women who question traditional roles are just two examples of this country’s vast gender inequality and wobbly rule of law — among the factors economists say are keeping India from its goal of being a global power.

According to government statistics, the number of rapes reported nationwide rose 50 percent between 2001 and 2011, when police registered 23,582 cases. Over the same period in Haryana, a state of 25 million people, the figure rose nearly 85 percent, to 733. Police and activists say part of the increase might be attributable to more reporting, but they also insist that incidents are rising.

In October, a senior Haryana police officer interviewed by an Indian magazine blamed the increase on girls and women who are “easily influenced” and wear Western clothes. Police interviewed after the New Delhi case were more circumspect, vaguely blaming socioeconomic factors.

Some right-wing Hindu nationalists have tried to blame rapes on the influx of Western values or portray them as an urban phenomenon. But in rural India, the status of women is so low — and a family’s honor their exclusive burden — that such crimes often go unrecorded. When police do take up rape cases, rural communities tend to rally around the accused and ostracize the accusers.

“This is an unequal society. Boys can do what they want,” said Jagmati Sangwan of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. “Honor is for girls only, and they pay such a high price for that.”

The girl from Banwasa, who had been married three months, was eventually dumped back at the railway crossing. But her relatives said they are unlikely to press charges.

“So many people have been coming and urging us to compromise, saying, ‘They are young lads, you should think about their future, their lives should not get spoiled,’ ” said the girl’s father. The Washington Post is not naming the girl or her relatives because it generally does not identify rape victims. Indian law also prohibits the identification of rape victims.

“When respected people in the community ask for forgiveness, how can I be above that? We don’t want to do anything wrong in the eyes of society and lose our place,” the father said.

Such is the premium on males in India that sex-selective abortions are common. Haryana has the lowest female-to-male ratio in the country, with just 830 girls to every 1,000 boys 6 years old and under; the national ratio is 914 to 1,000. Jobs are scarce, and the state is home to a small army of idle young men.

Falling in love across caste boundaries is viewed as the greatest crime of all and often results in “honor killings.” But having a boyfriend of any caste can make a girl vulnerable to rape.

“They are somehow soft targets, because they are taken as loose characters,” Sangwan said.“Boys think, ‘Why can’t we claim our rights on them?’ ”

In many cases, such as the rape of a 15-year-old from the village of Dabra in September, upper-caste boys prey on Dalit, or “untouchable,” girls, knowing they can be threatened into silence.

The Dabra victim said in an interview that she was kidnapped by two men, drugged and driven to a dry riverbed. There, she said, she was raped for several hours by between eight and 12 men.

The perpetrators then circulated a video of the assault throughout the village. After viewing it, the girl’s father committed suicide by drinking pesticide, his wife said.

The girl’s family and their attorney say the police deliberately transcribed the girl’s statement incorrectly to suggest that she had given her consent and that the perpetrators were landless Dalits rather than upper-caste Jats, who dominate the government, police and rural economy here.

The error was discovered by a Dalit rights activist who read the statement. The girl’s relatives said they had little faith in the authorities — after all, the families of eight other local Dalit girls they know who also had been raped by Jat men never went to the police.

“We are Dalit families; we are working on lands owned by the Jats,” said the girl, now 16. “Where will they go after complaining?”

But what happened next suggests that the kind of outrage that surrounded the New Delhi incident was already building in rural areas, if slowly.

The family refused to collect the father’s body from the hospital unless the police took the case seriously. Activists and local television channels drew attention to the case, and hundreds of people staged a candlelight vigil in the nearby town of Hisar. Galvanized into action, the police properly recorded the girl’s statement, and today eight men are behind bars facing rape charges.

Police officials insisted that they would have pursued the case even without such pressure. Similar backlash after other recent Haryana rape cases has also prompted authorities to act. But activists say there is a huge battle ahead to fundamentally change Haryana’s misogynistic culture.

Often, married women who are raped are cast out by their husbands. The rape victim from Dabra said she was proud that her family had stood by her and insisted that justice be done.

“There have been 25 rape cases after my incident, where they have all gone and filed [police complaints] after seeing me do it,” she said; she wants to become a journalist so she can “speak out” against the government.

In Banwasa, the 17-year-old victim is back with her husband, but it is clear that she does not quite agree with her father’s magnanimous approach toward her tormentors.

“I want them to be punished by whatever the law permits, whether that is life imprisonment or hanging,” she said. “Boys think that if rapists get away with it, they will also do it with impunity.”

Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.

 
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