India’s shocking rape cases highlight social inequality and lack of care for victims
NEW DELHI // On the afternoon of July 10, a 21-year-old student was leaving her college in Rohtak, in the state of Haryana, when she spotted a group of five waiting men. She recognised them instantly. They were the men who had raped her in 2013.
“Two were outside and three were inside the car,” the student, who cannot be identified by name under Indian law, told reporters. “I was scared of seeing them. They took me in the car.”
The men proceeded to gang-rape her a second time, and they threatened her with further violence if she did not withdraw her earlier charges. In the case she had filed after the first incident of rape, only two of the five men had been arrested and were later released on bail. The judiciary moved so slowly that no progress had been made at all towards convicting the men.
The student was found later that night in some bushes, unconscious and with her clothes torn. Only three of the men have subsequently been arrested; the other two remain missing.
With this case following the gang-rape of another student in December 2012 and several other shocking rape cases across the country in the intervening period, India has found itself the focus of global attention for sexual crimes against its women. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded 37,413 cases of rape across India in 2014, the last year for which data is available, and thousands more cases go unreported because of the stigma associated with rape or the failure of police stations to register complaints properly.
But while more work needs to go into the registering of rape incidents, even more needs to go into ensuring the safety of victims following rape, and limiting their vulnerability to repeat rape and violence. There is currently no way of knowing how many recorded rape and sexual violence cases are repeat incidents since the NCRB does not sort data along these lines.
The Rohtak crime is one of two repeat rapes to have exploded into the news in India over the past three months. In May, a 14-year-old girl in Delhi was kidnapped and raped by her neighbour, just days before the first hearing in a case filed against him for committing a similar rape against her last year.
During the second attack, however, the rapist went even further, forcing the girl to drink an unidentified corrosive substance. This “completely destroyed her internal organs, and she died a very painful death”, Swati Maliwal, chair of the government-appointed Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), said in May.
Usha Vishwakarma, who started the Lucknow-based non-profit organisation Red Brigades, which trains women in self-defence and raises awareness about sexual crimes, told The National that she frequently encountered cases of repeat violence in her work.
Ms Vishwakarma founded Red Brigades in 2011, a year after surviving an attempted rape herself. Red Brigades’ chapters across the country count more than 9,000 women among its members.
“We get women who’ve been raped, and who are told that if they complain, or if they’ve already complained and don’t withdraw it, they’ll be raped again,” Ms Vishwakarma said. “In these cases, the rapist has the upper hand. He has more power.”
A systemic social inequality adds to the imbalance of power, she said. The targets of sexual crimes are frequently women who are poorer or of a lower caste. In the cases of the 21-year-old and 14-year-old victims of repeat rapes, both women were Dalits – members of Hinduism’s lowest caste.
“We have a woman with us now, where a man from a powerful local family attempted to rape her. She’s a Dalit too,” Ms Vishwakarma said. “He wants her to take back the charges she’s filed, of attempted sexual assault, and members of his family are threatening her with rape and even murder.”
Karuna Nundy, a Delhi-based lawyer who practises in India’s Supreme Court and who works frequently on laws and cases involving violence against women, said that in rapes which go unreported, there is frequently pressure from the woman’s friends and family to let the crime pass.
“This is particularly when we see cases of acquaintance rape, where the rapist is well known to the woman,” Ms Nundy told The National. “The rapist gains successful protection from the social patriarchy that surround him and the survivor.”
“This gives him impunity,” she said. “He can think: ‘OK, I got away with it, I can do it again’.”
Three years ago, a judicial committee recommended several measures to ensure effective policing of sexual crimes. These included creating an environment in police stations where women felt safe to file charges, registering complaints promptly, and prosecuting cases speedily.
Doing all of these, Ms Nundy said, would in itself cut down instances of repeat rape.
Across the country, a more robust witness protection programme is also needed. Last year, Delhi became the first state to implement such a programme, which includes opportunities for witness relocation and security for witnesses’ homes.
The work of protecting witnesses is likely to further tax a police force that is already stretched thin. India has 129 policemen per 100,000 people, far below the global average of roughly 350.
“But this is the state’s responsibility,” Ms Nundy said. “If they don’t have the resources, they have the responsibility to find the resources and fund it. But they have to do it.”