Five alleged rapes, mostly of minors, within five days in the northern Indian state of Haryana, has forced the issue of sexual violence back onto India’s national agenda, provoking widespread condemnation.
Last Friday evening, the half-naked body of a 15-year-old girl was found floating in a canal in Jind district, roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) west from the capital New Delhi. Her numerous injuries, both internal and external, were consistent with those of gang rape, according to the police officer leading the investigation.
The girl, who has not been named under laws meant to protect the victims of sexual assault, had gone missing from her home in the village of Jhansa on January 9. A primary suspect in the case, a 18-year-old male student allegedly known to the victim, was found dead on Tuesday in what police have described as a decomposed state. The discovery of the young man’s body has complicated the ongoing investigation and put pressure on police efforts.
And that pressure is building.
The incident was just one of four alleged incidents of sexual assault to occur in Haryana in the space of 72-hours.
- On Saturday, the semi-naked body of an 11-year-old girl was found dead in the district of Panipat. Again, her injuries were consistent with gang rape.
- On Sunday, a 22-year-old woman was abducted from a bus stop on a busy road while on her way home from work. She was bundled into a SUV and raped repeatedly by a group of men, before being dumped by a gas station in Sikri.
- Also on Sunday, in Pinjore district, a 50-year-old man is alleged to have sexually assaulted a 10-year-old with a wooden object.
- These cases were followed Tuesday with the alleged rape of a three-year-old girl in Hisar district by a 15-year-old boy, taking the total number of reported rapes in the state to five in five days. The boy, also a minor, has been kept under police observation, according to local authorities.
There is no indication the cases are linked.
Change is slow
The Indian media have called the string of cases “Nirbhaya-like,” referring to the 2012 gang rape of 23-year-old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh who later died from injuries sustained in the attack.
Singh’s case shocked India, resulting in an intense period of media coverage and nationwide protests. Singh is commonly referred to as Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless” in Hindi.
In the month’s following Singh’s death, the central government passed legislative reform to increase penalties for sexual violence. This involved increasing the length of prison sentences and adding the death penalty.
In addition, the government set up fast-track courts and set up a $480 million budget, known as the Nirbhaya Fund, for new women’s safety initiatives.
A little more than five years later, change is slow to manifest itself.
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“Rape is all about patriarchal power and that kind of mindset takes a long time to change,” said Sohini Bhattarcharya, president of Breakthrough, a non-governmental organization that works on gender issues in India and the US. “One Nirbhaya, one countrywide protest will not change it.”
The latest data from India’s National Crime Record Bureau recorded a 12% rise in the number of rape related cases — up from 34,651 cases in 2015 to 38,947 in 2016. On average, that’s more than 100 reported cases of rape every day.
While the numbers show a clear rise in the number of sexual assaults, experts say the increase is at least partially due to increased awareness among women.
Speaking to CNN, Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, an anti-sex trafficking organization in India said that the data reveals women are “refusing to be silent,” and that the “shame is no longer there.” However, she cautioned that the figures likely represent only the tip of the iceberg.
“Large numbers of women are choosing not to report incidents … because they don’t trust the police, or the police are not registering the cases.”
Despite reforms, sexual assault survivors face systemic barriers in India
Sexual assault survivors in India continue to face obstacles when reporting incidents.
According to a report last year by Human Rights Watch, a study of fast-track court judgments in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, found that 25% of the judgments explicitly referenced what is known as the “two-finger test.”
Under government-approved guidelines issued in 2014, that test, which supposedly determines whether a woman is sexually active, was declared scientifically inaccurate and irrelevant to cases of rape.
The report found that as of November 2017, only nine out of 29 Indian states had adopted the 2014 guidelines, which also advocate for long-term trauma counseling.
Barriers are exacerbated if the victim is from a poor family, or a lower caste — as is the case with the spate of recent cases in Haryana.
In such cases, the report found multiple incidents where the police pressured women to settle their complaints for money, or choose not to register their complaints.
Speaking to CNN, Sandhya Gokhale, founder of Forum Against the Oppression of Women in Mumbai, claimed that most reports of sexual assault never make it beyond the police station. “It’s only when it becomes so gruesome that (then) it’s coming out,” said Gokhale.
Even if a case is registered, getting justice in India’s court systems is far from certain.
Courts and police both face a massive backlog of cases.
According to court records, the number of sexual assault-related cases awaiting a trial date in 2016 totaled 15,450, with the courts resolving just 1395, or less than 10%.