India: a remarkable rape case

MUMBAI, India — A poor girl in northern India is a member of the lowest caste. She winds up in jail after fleeing her alleged rapists. These alleged rapists are powerful men.

What are the odds the story gets better from here?

Slim, to say the least.

“Here child marriage is rampant, abuse of minor girls is rampant, abductions are very frequent,” said Tapas Kumar Chakraborty, a community volunteer and journalist in Uttar Pradesh, where the girl lives. “The powerful men and the gangsters get away with everything.”

And yet, the story of this girl appears to be an exception — at least so far.

Months after losing her mother, this teenage girl living in Banda, Uttar Pradesh, was abducted. The girl's father, a farm laborer, pleaded with a state assemblyman to help him find his daughter. The legislator helped rescue the girl and then offered to let her live with him as his domestic help. The father agreed.

“He thought she would be safe there,” said Chakraborty. “But that didn’t happen unfortunately.”

The legislator, Purshottam Naresh Dwivedi, and three other men allegedly raped and beat the 17-year-old repeatedly. The girl tried to flee, but she was caught, beaten, accused of theft and handed over to the police, according to news reports. The girl, a minor, spent a month in jail.

It is not uncommon for powerful men who sexually assault or exploit women in India to use their money or political connections to shield themselves from legal consequences.

“This is one such reported case. There are many, many, many such unreported cases,” said Amitabh Kumbar of the Centre for Social Research. “Exploitation of poor women by politicians is a common trait not just in UP [Uttar Pradesh] but across the country.”

But thanks to a combination of factors connected to her own personality, an active civil society and political games in her state, the girl has not only been freed from jail, but the politician and other accused men have been arrested. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party's general secretary and heir apparent as prime minister, traveled to Uttar Pradesh on Monday and met with the girl at her village.

In a place like Banda, there is usually little chance that a poor girl will manage to get out of jail or that authorities will arrest powerful men.

Why has this case turned out differently?

To begin with, the teenage girl — a Dalit, the Hindu caste formerly known as untouchables — in this case appears to be nothing short of remarkable.

In a country where there is tremendous social stigma associated with rape, most women and girls do not report sexual abuse, according to Pouruchisti Wadia with the Women’s Rights Initiative at the Lawyer’s Collective. Girls and women fear others won't believe them or that they will blame them for bringing on sexual advances. If they speak out, they will face public humiliation and may find it difficult to find a future marriage partner.

“If you tell the neighborhood you have been raped, you will be socially ostracized, you won’t have anywhere to go, your parents won’t be able to take [you] back,” said Chakraborty.

“A 17-year-old girl,” he paused, “I don’t know where she got all this courage.”

If girls do report abuse, they are likely to face intimidation and harassment and later recant their statements. The Banda case is remarkable, said Ranjana Kumari, a leading women’s rights advocate and president of Women’s Power Connect, because the girl both reported the abuse and then stood strong in the face of pressure.

In addition to the strength of this one individual, the case has been blessed with an outpouring of support from activist groups and intense media attention.

After the girl in Banda was arrested, her father alerted a local group of female activists who defend women from violence. The group, called gulabi, or pink sari gang, tries to reason with abusive husbands in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand district. If that does not work, they use bamboo sticks to publically humiliate the men until they stop beating their wives, according to founder Sampat Pal Devi.

Devi visited the girl in jail and took on the case, she wrote to GlobalPost through a translator. The gang protested outside the Banda jail and attracted the attention of the local and national media as well as opposition party politicians in Banda. Eventually, the pressure succeeded at getting the girl released.

India has a robust civil society that has in the past acted as a check on government abuse. Strong media attention and an outraged public forced the courts to pursue the case of a 14-year-old girl, Ruchika Girotra, molested by a senior police official. And a Hindi film currently playing in India, “No One Killed Jessica,” retells the story of the 1999 Delhi murder of a young woman by a politician’s son. The killer initially got off, but after strong public pressure, the prosecution appealed and the murderer was ultimately convicted.

“To function moderately well, a democracy needs three sectors to pull their weight — the state, private enterprise and civil society,” prominent writer and author Ramachandra Guha wrote in this week’s Outlook magazine. “In 2011, it appears to be civil society which is performing best of all.”

The Banda girl has also benefitted because both the opposition and ruling Bahujan Samaj Party have attempted to get political mileage out of her case. In addition, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati is India’s first female Dalit chief minister, and despite accusations of corruption, she has built her reputation on supporting Dalits.

While these factors have helped the girl so far, some legal experts say it is too early to assume she will get a fair trial.

“I don’t have the confidence that because of this the girl is going to get a better chance of justice,” said Wadia. When the case goes to court, the girl is likely to go through “terrible torture” again and face degrading questions about her morality, chastity and honor, she said.

Factors related to the mindset of judges, the training of medical professionals, the protection of witnesses and the treatment of the survivor make sexual assault cases among the hardest in India to secure a conviction, according to Mumbai-based civil rights lawyer Vijay Hiremath.

He gave an example from 2009 in which the Bombay High Court overturned a rape conviction — for a case in which the woman had her jaw broken, and there were witnesses — because the court assumed the woman's testimony was inconsistent and she was lying. The woman was married, and if she claimed that "complete intercourse" took place, she should have also known that the man would ejaculate, according to the judge's reasoning. “The whole story takes the shape of ‘cock and bull,’” the judge wrote.

The case in Banda “should be the beginning of a more systematic approach to sexual assault,” said Aruna Kashyap, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. She said India needs an overhaul in how survivors are treated that includes institutionalized support for survivors.

Pink sari gang leader Devi says that changes have slowly been taking place in her district in the past few years and more women now speak up about abuse. To ensure that more girls do not face sexual assault, she says, societal mores must change.

“Men must show some respect,” she wrote. “But I also feel that there should be more education for women and more groups like mine, out to fight on the street for the hapless rape victims so that men get a lesson.”

Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India