GAJIPUR, India — Two things happened after the rape of a 6-year-old girl in this small Indian town. First, a violent mob thrashed a man accused of committing the crime. Then, the town’s residents started telling their children — especially girls — not to walk to school and play outdoors.
Two other child rapes occurred here in the space of 10 days this spring, the latest of several high-profile assault cases across a country where sexual violence has become endemic. Nearly 39,000 rapes were reported in India in 2016, according to police data. Child rapes jumped 82 percent that year, to more than 19,000.
Politicians and civic leaders for years have struggled to find a cause and a solution to what has become known as India’s rape crisis. Are patriarchal attitudes toward sex to blame? Or the impunity for perpetrators? Proposed solutions run from vigilantism to the death penalty. But in Gajipur, just outside India’s capital, the most pressing issue after the rapes was how to protect the town’s children — and teach them to protect themselves — while allowing them to have some semblance of a childhood.
In the aftermath of the rape of the 6-year-old, parents tried to explain sexual violence to children who had still not learned the meaning of the word sex. “My children asked me, ‘What is rape, Mom?’ ” said one mother, Renu Bindal. “How do I answer that?”
Child rape and sexual violence have long been common in India, a country of 1.3 billion people, along with other forms of child abuse such as child marriage, child labor and the trafficking of children. The gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl by Hindu attackers in Kashmir in January gripped the country, in part because the case touched on heightened religious tensions.
But rape is thought to be hugely underreported in the country, and it is hard to say whether the increased numbers of reported rapes reflect an actual rise in incidents. According to experts, they are likely to have spiked due to an expansion in India’s legal definition of rape in 2012, as well as more reporting and awareness of the issue.
The rape that left Gajipur reeling happened between 9 and 10 p.m. on April 17. The victim had gone to buy cookies from a shop near her home. She was kidnapped, drugged and raped. When she was found by relatives, she was covered in blood. (The Post generally does not name sexual assault victims.)
The girl survived the attack and was brought back home from the hospital about two weeks later. Video footage circulated of the suspected rapist being beaten and denying involvement in the rape.
Gajipur is a maze of haphazard buildings built on top of dust and dirt about 20 miles outside New Delhi. Waves of migrant laborers have settled here over the years, looking for work in the capital. Levels of poverty vary, but nobody here is rich. Stray cows roam the streets, children play cricket in garbage dumps, and an underground trade of narcotics thrives, as evidenced by the men crumpled in stupors on the town’s main road.
And now, for the town’s children, the specter of assault looms large. Half a dozen children said in interviews that they were sleeping badly because of scary dreams in which either they or their siblings were abducted.
“I dreamed that my brother had gone out of the house to buy something and someone kidnapped him,” said 10-year-old Chetan Bindal. His 8-year-old sister Natasha refuses to go to the bathroom alone at night.
Some of the victim’s friends said they had stopped attending school since the attack. Priti, an 11-year-old who discovered her friend after the rape, said, “I’m scared that someone could kidnap me, do something like that to me.”
The efforts to prevent child rapes in Gajipur have largely focused on girls and their behavior.
The Rock Foundation elementary school in Gajipur created a class to teach girls about the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch.” The teachers tell their students to talk to an adult if family members or even teachers at school touch them inappropriately.
At the end of one recent class, the girls asked their teachers questions that revealed their fears.
“If somebody is continuously staring at you, what should you do?” asked a 12-year-old after a recent class.
“Should you stop trusting friends and relatives?” asked another.
The roads that cut through Gajipur can be perilous for girls and women, who say they are regularly taunted and jeered at by young men. The triple rapes confirmed parents’ fears, and many stopped letting their daughters play outdoors after school.
“My mom and dad tell me not to go outside,” said 12-year-old Neha Sharma. “I feel like, why can’t we go out? Boys play outside. My brother plays outside. I feel like, why can’t I play with him?”
Bharti Ali, co-director of Haq Centre for Child Rights, said responses to rape often reinforce existing attitudes about how women need to be protected.
“Every time we talk about rape, we only talk among women,” she said. “We need to involve men and boys, and talk to them about sexual violence and gender-based violence as well.”
Months after the rapes, many of Gajipur’s residents are intent on preventing another assault. Some have started demanding a new police outpost in the town; others want separate schools for girls. Many have called for harsher punitive measures as a necessary deterrent.
“If they hang one man, 100,000 rapists will be cured,” said Ishwar Chandgarg, a local leader in the town.
Many in India want tougher laws to curb the wider problem of rape in the country. In response to huge public outcry over earlier child rape cases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government introduced India’s first sex-offender registry and the death penalty for child rapists.
But questions remain about whether the measures will work.
“What we’re doing is creating a set of people who will never be able to move on in life,” said Ali. “To deal with one set of violent actions, we are promoting another set of violent actions. And people seem to be okay with it.”