Sexual violence in India shocks the world

No more: A student in Hyderabad last year demanding the death penalty for four rapists © PA

The appalling case of two teenage girls who were brutally raped and then hanged has prompted outrage across India and the world. Can anything be done to prevent such dreadful crimes?

India is reeling once again. Eighteen months after the shocking rape and murder of a 23-year-old Delhi student sparked nationwide protests and international condemnation, two young girls have been found hanging from a tree after being brutally gang-raped.

Last Tuesday, the 14 and 15-year-old cousins left their homes in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, about 150 miles south-east of New Delhi. It was evening and the best friends were on their way to a nearby field to use as a toilet, because they had none in their village.

When they failed to return home, the girls' families alerted the police, but they ridiculed them and refused to investigate, because the families are from the lowest ranks of the Indian ‘caste‘ hierarchy — known as Dalits. After their discovery, the bodies were only removed eight hours later from the branches of the tree.

The case has shocked and shamed India, and has highlighted several issues that plague this country — sexual violence, poverty and prejudice. It is one of the first major challenges to face India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi — whose own lowly social status was a key element of his election victory last month.

Although it is illegal to discriminate against a person based on their caste in India, prejudice is still widespread. Members of dominant castes are known to use sexual violence against Dalit women and girls to assert their power. Two officers involved in the case have been arrested and two others dismissed.

Campaigners also highlight the lack of sanitation in rural areas which causes serious health problems and also encourages sexual violence. Women are often attacked when they have to go into the fields at night.

For a country that aspires to superpower status, the lack of toilets is a source of shame and embarrassment. Modi promised ‘toilets first, temples later’ in the run-up to his election victory. But will change come soon enough?

Mistaken convictions

This is an appalling crime, and one that happens all too frequently — official statistics say there are 25,000 rapes every year — but activists say this might be only ten per cent or less of the real figure. But changing sexual and cultural attitudes in such a deeply conservative country is a project whose success will be measured in decades.

But others argue that politicians must act immediately. In the past, attitudes to rape in India have been casual, and even politicians have openly blamed rape victims with few consequences. But the tide is turning and Indian women are now demanding greater protection and independence. The country’s new, dynamic prime minister, must respond to this crisis fast.

You Decide

  1. How does reading about this story make you feel?
  2. Some say that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for this crime. Will harsher consequences reduce sexual violence?

Activities

  1. In groups, design a poster and slogan which condemns rape and sexual violence.
  2. Research the problem of open defecation, using the expert links. Produce an infographic displaying key facts and figures about the issue.

Some People Say...

“There is nothing inevitable about violence against women.’Owen Jones”

What do you think?

Q & A

It’s a tragic story, but I don’t live in India.
India might feel far away, but that doesn’t mean that this story doesn’t affect all of us. Violence against women is a global problem, and some say it is reaching record levels. In the UK, during the 12 months to March 2013, there were over 10,000 recorded rapes of adults in England and Wales, and there is increasing alarm over a ‘rape culture’ whereby seemingly harmless male ‘banter’ is normalising sexual violence and harassment.
OK, but open defecation doesn’t affect me.
Lucky you — but it’s not the case for one billion people around the world. The subject is rarely talked about, but the consequences are devastating. Defecating in the open can expose vulnerable people to sexual violence, as well as a wide range of life-threatening diseases.

Word Watch

Delhi student
A 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern was tortured and raped on a moving bus in New Delhi in December 2012. Her injuries were so severe that she later died in hospital. The case prompted major protests all over the world, and India implemented the death penalty for certain rape cases. The four convicted rapists were condemned to death and are currently appealing their sentence.
New Delhi
India’s capital city has a very bad reputation for sexual assault.
Caste
The two girls were from a Dalit village, home to a community from the lowest ranks of the Indian caste system. Dalits, formerly known as ‘untouchables’, still face systematic discrimination across India. Caste identities are weakening, but are still strong in rural areas and particularly in northern parts of the country.
Politicians
The leader of the Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, which runs Uttar Pradesh, sparked controversy last month when he made sympathetic comments about rapists, saying ‘boys make mistakes’.

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