India gang rapes persist despite growing awareness of women’s rights

HYDERABAD, India — The chauffeur’s boss was out of town, so the driver called a friend and said, “Let’s have some fun” — which police say meant finding a woman to rape.

Hopping into a luxury car, the two soon spotted their victim — a young software engineer leaving a shopping mall. They lured her into the car by making it appear to be a taxi, police said, took her to a remote spot and raped her with such ferocity that she bled for hours.

(Annie Gowen/The Washington Post) - HYDERABAD- The scene at the PJR Colony, the former slum where both of the perpetrators of the October 18 gang rape lived.

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Much has changed in India since the December night last year when another young woman was brutally gang-raped, in New Delhi, and later died — a case that shocked the country and sparked protests over sexual violence against women. Parliament passed stricter laws on rape and sexual harassment. Police have become more sympathetic to women. Help lines have been flooded with calls.

But rapes by gangs of young men have continued with a disturbing frequency, even though the four men convicted in the Delhi case were sentenced to death by hanging. Law enforcement officials and experts say there still is a widespread sense of impunity among aggressors.

“In India, men rape because it’s a manly thing to subjugate the weaker sex,” said Purnima Nagaraja, a psychiatrist who has worked with hundreds of rape survivors in the area. “Our culture puts so much emphasis on ‘being a man,’ which creates huge in­securities for men as they see women’s status rising in society.”

Packs of young men rape for sport partly because they resent the economic disparity between the rich and the poor, Nagaraja said. The flow of uneducated migrants from rural areas to cities , she added, can leave young men feeling unmoored, away from a village life in which males hold sway.

Although India passed tighter sexual-assault laws this year, prosecutions remain achingly slow. The government created fast-track courts in New Delhi to expeditiously deal with such cases, but they are overflowing. As of November, these courts had convicted 178 attackers and acquitted 407; more than 1,700 cases are pending.

Their conviction rate — about one-third — isn’t any higher than in the regular courts, according to the city’s prosecution agency.

“It takes so long to convict the guilty,” said Prabhans Mahato, 32, the father of a 5-year-old girl who was held for 40 hours and raped repeatedly by a neighbor this year. She required several surgeries afterward. “People feel there is no law at all,” Mahato added.

After the two Hyderabad men were arrested, they admitted to having sex with the woman but showed little remorse, police said.

“I said, ‘Are you not scared?’ ” recalled C.V. Anand, the police chief of the Cyberabad region, a large district that rings the central city. “They said, ‘We never felt we would get caught. She would not say anything. Indian women can’t come out about such things.’ ”

Just as Anand was giving his interview, TV news flashed photos of another gang-rape victim — a teenage girl who had been held captive by two older youths and assaulted repeatedly for 10 days. High-profile attacks also have occurred in other cities, including Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as in rural areas.

“Unless the mentality changes,” Nagaraja said, “this is not going to go away.”

‘Men with nothing to do’

In the past 20 years, Hyderabad has grown from a sleepy town to a thriving hub that built landscaped business parks to attract information technology companies such as IBM and Facebook. Nagaraja said common sexual misconduct has worsened from “Eve-teasing” — the term used in India for sexual taunting — to rape and, in the past five years or so, gang rapes.

And India, which has long favored its sons, has an increasing gender gap because of the widespread but illegal practice of aborting female fetuses. Like other developing countries, India has a young population struggling to find decent work.

“There are too many men with nothing to do, just hanging around all day, passing comments on women,” said Uma Sharma, an activist in a New Delhi slum. “We thought all the protests after last year’s gang rape will instill fear in men. We watched it on television. But nothing has changed. This gets worse every day.”

She and other activists marched in outrage to the police station after investigators failed to file charges in a sexual attack on a 15-year-girl; the activists prevailed, but they got little support from the men in their community.

“When we go for the women’s committee meeting, they mock us,” Sharma said. “ ‘Just because you have a committee, you think you can change the world?’ ”

In rural areas, lower-caste women are often raped by members of the dominant caste. And in recent months, victims have accused high-profile men — from a former judge to the editor of a well-known magazine — of sexual misconduct.

As cellphone use has spread, access to pornography and violent movies also has increased. Nagaraja has studied more than 2,000 men ages 15 to 25 and says that 58 percent of them watch sadomasochistic pornography.

Fear and community

The accused in the attack on the software engineer in Hyderabad, Vedicharla Satish, 30, and Nemmadi Venkateswarlu, 28, were born in villages to lower-caste families, had little education and had come to the city looking for better lives, authorities said. The two became friends in PJR Colony, a working-class complex of dusty pink concrete that had once been a slum. Family members said Satish was trying to save money to buy an auto-rickshaw, a three-wheeler used for public transportation, to better support his wife and young son.

The case, which roiled the region’s IT community, has striking similarities to the fatal Dec. 16 attack in Delhi last year. Both victims were educated women aspiring to be part of India’s middle class and were raped by men who, posing as public transportation drivers, were looking for prey.

The police called the victim in Hyderabad “Abhaya,” similar to the pseudonym “Nirbhaya” that was given to the Delhi victim. Both mean “fearless” in Hindi.

Police said the two men were cruising around an area called HITEC City when they spotted their victim, a 22-year-old software engineer, texting on her cellphone.

Authorities said that after Satish and Venkateswarlu hoodwinked the woman into the car, they held her captive on a terrifying highway journey before raping her and letting her off at her home around 1:30 a.m. They threatened to return and harm her if she told anyone what had happened.

Even as they raped her, they addressed her as “Madam,” a sign of respect accorded to someone of a higher class, police said.

Satish’s relatives said he later told them that the sex had been consensual. Neighbors — both male and female — were critical of the victim: Why had she not cried out? Or used her cellphone to call for help?

“I’m angry at my husband,” said Satish’s wife, Manjula, 27. “I’m there for his sexual needs. Why should he go to another woman?”

When police, who were called by the victim’s boyfriend, arrived at her home, she first denied that she had been raped. She finally broke down and described what had happened when questioned alone by a sympathetic female police officer, who had seen a pool of blood on the floor.

“I can see tears in her eyes,” said Janaki Sharmila, a deputy commissioner of police. “She didn’t want to reveal it to anybody. She was concerned her parents would commit suicide or take her back to the village.”

Eventually, however, Sharmila persuaded the woman to file a complaint against the men, who were detained and paraded before the media in black hoods. They are expected to be charged with rape soon.

The road ahead

In the days since the attack, police have launched a women’s safety program, including 40 additional public buses, along with closed-circuit security cameras and awareness campaigns for both sexes at local universities.

“Sensitizing and stringent punishment” are the only roads to real change, Sharmila said. It could take years.

The victim’s firm quietly transferred her to another city, where she lives with her boyfriend, who recently got a visa to the United States. She is hoping to follow him there soon, to begin a new life.

Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.

 
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