India: institutionalized rape targets ‘untouchables’

The deadly gang-rape of a 23-year-old medical student in a moving bus in Delhi has sparked outrage across India. But it remains to be seen if the protest movement will address the institutionalized use of rape to enforce India’s caste system. Since the notorious Delhi case, horrendous incidents against low-caste women and girls have been reported in India’s press—but have failed to galvanize the same outcry.  A 15-year-old Dalit (“untouchable”)  girl was apparently held captive and repeatedly raped for 15 days by three men in Dharauli village in Sultanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. The incident was reported after she was “freed” on Dec. 30. According to police the girl went missing on Dec. 14 while going to school.

In September, three months before the Delhi attack, a 16-year-old Dalit girl was gang-raped by at least eight drunken higher-caste men for three hours in Sacha Khera village in Haryana state. The men videotaped the assault on their cellphones, and eventually the images were shown to the girl’s father—who shortly thereafter committed suicide. The village has seen a string of such attacks; in another incident in October, a 16-year-old Dalit girl self-immolated after being gang-raped by higher-caste men. Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi visited the village to meet with the girl’s stricken family, but no charges have been brought—because of the privileged status of the perpetrators. The girl’s parents have been threatened and harassed for demanding justice. “The rest of the village is supporting the accused because they are well off, with government jobs,” the father told The Hindu daily.

But Sube Singh, a leader of Sacha Khera’s khap panchayat (traditional village council) blamed the girls for their own rapes—and proposed lowering the age of marriage to 16 as a solution. He told news channel IBNLive: “I think that girls should be married at the age of 16, so that they have their husbands for their sexual needs, and they don’t need to go elsewhere. This way rapes will not occur.” (IBT, Jan. 5; PTI, The Hindu, Dec. 30; IBN, Oct. 7)

The protests over the Delhi rape have emboldened a 15-year-old Dalit girl from the village of Sirmaur in Himachal Pradesh to stand up against the landlord who had been sexually exploiting her for months. An arrest was made after the girl filed her complaint, in defiance of threats. According to the complaint, on Aug. 14 last year she was waylaid on her way home from school by landlord Sher Singh, who forcibly took her to a nearby field and raped her. He then threatened to evict her family from the land they cultivate if she spoke of the incident. Two more such rapes followed—resulting in the victim getting pregnant. When the accused learned of the pregnancy, he got it terminated by giving her some (presumably unauthorized) “medicines,” the girl said in her complaint. She is currently undergoing medical examinations. (TNN, Jan. 7)