LUCKNOW, INDIA — She was still a teenager when a pack of young men pulled her into a car, tortured her and gang-raped her.
The young woman, now a poised student, endured more than three dozen court appearances, six separate trials and endless legal wrangling.
The last of the rapists, the son of a powerful family, was convicted this past spring — 11 years after the crime. During her ordeal she was forced to leave school, was put in a home for runaway girls and even now lives with police protection out of fear that allies of the rapists could exact revenge.
Her supporters say her extraordinary perseverance helped her overcome forbidding legal odds.
“I decided I had a single goal,” said the young woman, the daughter of an illiterate junk dealer: “Justice.”
Violence against women and the number of rapes in India have risen for over a decade — more than two rapes occur every hour on average, one study says — yet activists, attorneys and officials say that female crime victims still face many barriers in the country’s courts. These include poorly trained doctors, callous police, shoddy forensic practices and the delays that permeate India’s judicial system — delays so disheartening that some victims lose their nerve or settle with attackers’ families.
In recent years, India has responded by toughening its rape law and creating fast-track courts to speed prosecution of rape cases and other crimes against women. But these new courts have their own delays — and in some states, strikingly low conviction rates.
In April, when the last of the gang rapists in the case was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, the victim put on a pink sari and fed sweets to her joyous family and the activists who supported her during years of demanding action. But the journey is not over.
“I have thought about this continuously,” the young woman said recently. “Why did they do this to me? Why did they ruin my life — just because they had money and I’m poor?”
The victim, about age 13, was walking home from her job as a housemaid with her younger brother one rainy night in 2005 when a car with tinted windows pulled up. Four young men — who ranged in age from about 17 to 19 — were drunk and looking for a girl, one of them later told police. Two got out of the car, forced her in and drove away, ignoring the frightened cries of her brother.
For several hours, the victim said, the young men held her down and tortured her — sodomizing her with a gun and burning her repeatedly with a cigarette lighter. Others joined when they arrived at a remote plot of land, taking her to a dusty workshop ringed by eucalyptus trees, where she was raped on a wooden pallet. Police later recovered strands of her hair, her panties and her sandals at the scene, on land they said was owned by the powerful political family of the alleged ringleader, Gaurav Shukla.
Uttar Pradesh, the northern Indian state where the attack occurred, has a population of more than 200 million, about the same as Brazil. It is poor, deeply patriarchal and criticized for its thuggish political culture, the “Goonda Raj.” Instances of reported rape have increased faster in the state than in the rest of India in recent years, with the number of rapes more than doubling between 2014 and 2015. The leader of its governing political party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, caused a stir two years ago when he suggested that rapists should not be given the death penalty. “These are boys,” he said, “they make mistakes.”
Shukla was 18, cocky, the “destroyed son of a rich man,” as one of his neighbors put it. His attorney says that he was not involved but confirms that he faces separate charges of attempted murder and conspiracy — including a case still pending in what is known as “Gangster Court.”
Shukla’s brother, a lawyer, declined to comment on behalf of the family.
After the assault, the young men dropped the teen on the side of the road, threw down a 20-rupee bill (worth about 30 cents) and drove away. She could barely walk, but eventually found some village women and asked for help. She was in such bad shape that the women first thought she was a ghost.
“I said, ‘I’m not a ghost, I’m human, please help me,’ ” she recalled.
R.K.S. Rathore, the deputy inspector general of police in Lucknow, said he has not forgotten his first sight of the bleeding, limping teen when she was brought to the police station a few hours later.
“It was quite evident she had been brutally handled,” Rathore said.
The victim had support from the police early on as well as from her father, a white-bearded scrap dealer named Sabruddin, who was outraged at what his daughter had gone through.
In this, she was lucky: Many families don’t report rapes for fear it will bring dishonor upon them. And police have long discouraged women from filing complaints out of indifference or a desire to keep crime statistics down, although that is changing with new laws.
The victim was taken to a nearby emergency room where a doctor noted cuts and abrasions and referred her to a female physician for a rape exam.
Although the victim was hospitalized a day later because of excessive vaginal bleeding and would continue to bleed for weeks afterward, the female physician wrote in her report that there was no bleeding and did not mention the burns on her body obvious to police and her family. She noted that the girl’s hymen was no longer intact but concluded that “no definite opinion about rape” could be given.
Many rape cases are hampered by poorly trained doctors, sloppy evidence gathering and a dearth of forensic labs, experts say. Sexual-assault examination guidelines for doctors were established only in 2014.
The doctor also performed what is known as the “two-finger test,” a once-routine practice in rape exams where two fingers are used to determine the pliability of the hymen. The exam has long been used by defense attorneys as evidence that a victim had an alleged prior sexual history, although courts have said that should have no bearing. This “blame the victim” mentality long outraged human rights groups.
Although new medical guidelines for doctors forbid its use and the Supreme Court outlawed the two-finger test in 2013, “that is still being done,” according to Lalitha Kumaramangalam, the chair of the National Commission for Women.
One recent evening, the victim and her parents sat in the front room of their modest concrete house in a lower-class neighborhood of Lucknow, sipping gingery tea and nibbling hot jalebi sweets. An occasional train thundered past. As darkness fell, a single lightbulb gleamed above.
“In the past 11 years there was not one single day we enjoyed life happily,” said her mother, who still speaks the regional language of the eastern state of Assam, where they farmed before floods washed away their land and they moved to the city.
The mother still can’t speak without crying about the days and nights following the attack on her daughter, how the family was threatened and urged to drop the case by Shukla’s supporters, how her daughter was taken from her and put into protective custody, locked in a facility for runaway girls for nearly 18 months, permitted to see her parents just a few times a month.
Police eventually arrested Shukla and five accomplices that summer, tying them to the attack with the aid of a tipster and cellphone records, Rathore said. Two men were convicted in the case in 2007, and a third in 2013. Two juveniles spent time in detention facilities and later died in separate road accidents.
Meanwhile, Shukla and his attorneys waged a lengthy legal battle to prove that he was a juvenile rather than an adult at the time of the crime. As the years wore on, they were repeatedly admonished for not showing up to court, calling in sick and other excuses.
Defense attorneys often drag out trials to avoid jail time for their clients, according to Padm Kirti, a lawyer and legal writer in Lucknow. Bar associations cause delays by refusing to work on minor religious holidays or by going on strike. The system favors those who can afford pricey lawyers; meanwhile, the victim’s family had to sell its two buffaloes and solicit donations to pay its legal costs.
In her long wait for justice, the victim was not alone. The average lower-court trial in India takes more than six years, according to Daksh, a civil society organization in Bangalore that analyzes the Indian legal system, and can stretch even longer with High Court and Supreme Court appeals. In U.S. state courts, by contrast, various studies have found that the median time between arrest and adjudication for all felonies is about 110 days; for rape, about 250 days.
The system in India is clogged with rape-charge cases filed by families simply trying to save face when their daughters elope, or who are angry that a man broke a marriage promise. These take time and resources from actual victims.
As the case wore on, India was changing. Millions of young women were taking new jobs in an expanding economy, buying mobile phones and joining social media — venting their frustration over the gender violence and patriarchal attitudes that seemed to be holding India back.
The victim said she felt that she remained frozen, her life on hold. When would she go back to a normal school, go to the market and eat street snacks, giggle with girlfriends? Meanwhile, Shukla had a lavish wedding, and a son.
“Everybody knows about the case, people from my neighborhood,” she said. “At the same time I’ve lost my dignity, I’ve lost my childhood, he’s living a happily married life.”
Then came 2012 and the devastating fatal gang rape of a New Delhi college student on a bus, which prompted protests and outrage around the world and forced India to begin confronting, at last, the ubiquity of sexual assault. In its wake, the government tightened laws on rape, sexual harassment and human trafficking and set aside $289 million for rape crisis centers, help lines and special investigators. More than three-quarters of that has not been spent, according to a government report.
Protests continued, and a year later, hundreds of women were on the streets of Lucknow, agitating for women’s justice — including fast-track courts and a trial in the Shukla case.
In January 2015, the court referred the case to one of the new fast-track courts, among nearly 400 set up across the country.
But even then things did not go smoothly. Shukla’s attorneys continued to miss hearings. Two were rescheduled because the bar association had ordered a strike. In May last year, the entire court file mysteriously went missing, reappearing months later.
“The process in the fast-track courts is still slow,” said Bulbul Godiyal, the additional advocate general for Uttar Pradesh. “They are more effective than regular courts,” she said, but because of the overall problems in the system, “prolonged delays still occur.”
The state’s Legal Services Authority estimates that the conviction rate in these courts is low — a mere 5 to 10 percent, less than half the national rate for crimes against women.
The victim came face to face with her attacker in court in December, a few days after the trial finally began. She had not seen him for years. He had grown a mustache. His body had filled out. He had become a man.
When she testified a few weeks later, she became so emotional that she became sick and vomited. Court was adjourned.
With the encouragement of the women’s advocates who assisted in her case, the victim managed to resume her education at an alternative school and complete 11th grade.
She had tried to enroll in ninth grade in a regular school, but dropped out because she felt ashamed when people pointed, stared and referred to her as “the rape girl.” She wants to be free of it, this case that has consumed half her life.
Now in her mid-20s, she is entering 12th grade and dreams of becoming a judge or maybe marrying a young man from Assam.
“He would have to know about what happened, accept me, then never mention it again,” she said with a slight smile.
A local advocate who helped the victim said she rarely got discouraged during her long battle.
“She is remarkable,” said Madhu Garg, an activist with the All India Democratic Women’s Association in Lucknow. “The case dragged on for so long, but the strength of her character and her determination helped us win.”
A daily computer class in a nearby storefront is the victim’s salvation. There, no one knows her history, and she makes it a point to keep it that way, giving her police guards the slip when she heads out.
“When this incident happened I was scared of boys,” she said. “But the boys I have been studying with give me respect; they say ‘hi,’ ‘hello’ and help me if I don’t understand something in English.”
The young women gossip and giggle, and although she hasn’t joined in yet maybe she will soon. “I am feeling a lot lighter now,” she said.
The trial concluded in February, paving the way for Shukla’s conviction April 13. A few days later, he was charged with forging a high school certificate that said he was a minor at the time of the rape.
The man had been a familiar sight at the courthouse, turning up in designer sunglasses and blazers for his court appointments, driven in a government car, his “chamchas” — Hindi slang for henchmen — by his side. But the day the judge pronounced him guilty, Shukla hid his face with a white towel, sweaty and shaken.
His attorney, Gopal Narain Mishra, said that he is appealing because the prosecution pinned its case on the testimony of the victim alone and presented no physical evidence tying his client to the crime.
“This is a false conviction and an unsustainable case,” he said. “Gaurav Shukla is not involved.”
For the victim, Shukla’s conviction provided a measure of relief.
“After all these years, the wait is finally over,” she said.
Shukla could still be freed on bail while he awaits his appeal. The case could drag on for years.
Farheen Fatima, Alka Pande and Pragya Krisha contributed to this report.