Editor’s Note: Dr. Sunitha Krishnan is a mental health professional, social activist and trafficking expert. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
Brutal details have emerged of the drugging and gang-rape of a 21-year-old Dalit girl on her way home from college in the northern state of Haryana, India. Dalits are often relegated to the lowest rungs of Indian society.
Left for dead, the girl was taken to hospital by a passerby, where she told police that two of her attackers had sexually assaulted her 3 years previously.
The perpetrators were arrested in November 2013 and jailed, but the victim’s family members told police they were forced to move after receiving threats from the suspects and their friends, pressuring them to withdraw the case. The two suspects were released last month.
The incident has caused an international outcry and shone a light on the frequency of sexual violence incidents in the South Asian nation, specifically with regards to women from the lower castes.
We spoke to mental health professional, social activist and gang-rape survivor Dr. Sunitha Krishnan about the current situation in India, and how an event like this could possibly take place:
How can a woman be raped twice by the same people?
“There are two issues here. Firstly, India doesn’t have an effective enough mechanism to protect victim witnesses. There is a strong need for a witness protection program, because victims that choose to fight back are intimidated by perpetrators.
“Some of them get murdered, some of them struggle through all their life. There’s no system to provide support and protection for these victims. This is one of the biggest problems.
“The second problem is we don’t yet have a register available and in the public domain that enables us to track an offender, even if he is out on bail.
“Just a few weeks back, here in Hyderabad, a man with at least 17 cases pending against him was released after his conviction, and the very next day he allegedly raped and murdered a 10-year-old girl.
“What happened in Rohtak is nothing new. The problem is that nobody is keeping watch on offenders who have already demonstrated deviant sexual behavior.
“In my view, they shouldn’t be given bail at all. Once they are convicted, they can take their case to the high court. And once it’s admitted for appeal, they can get bail again.
“Today there are stringent laws in place – we have the criminal law amendment act in 2013 – but with these laws the victim’s position is becoming more precarious.
“The offender knows that if the victim testifies, the penalty is either life or capital punishment. So that can result in victims getting killed. That has to end. These offenders have to be kept in jail until their punishment is completed. This is the kind of amendment we require in law today, because without it, no victims will have the courage to be bold and speak out.”
How much does this case have to do with the caste system?
“In India the caste system plays a huge role. The upper caste are the ones that hold the power. They are the ruling caste, they decide. They are the power center of the country. The lower the caste, the more vulnerable and marginalized you are.
“Maybe unsurprisingly, if you look at sex crimes against women around the country, you’ll see that a high percentage of the women and children being raped are from the lower caste. They are definitely more vulnerable than anyone else.
“Caste plays a big role in both intimidating the victim and suppressing this form of violence. This particular girl in Haryana chose not to succumb to the pressure and she persisted with her case, which is maybe why this tragedy happened.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if people from the community visibly and tangibly protect these men and make sure they are not convicted at all. The upper caste have more resources, more power and a stronger network. They can afford the best lawyers. It’s a matter of caste honor.
“For centuries the lower caste have been subject to oppression, and one form of suppressing their empowerment has been through violence.
“And to a woman or a child, the worst form of violence you can think of is sexual assault and sex crime.”
What can be done about the sexual violence situation in India?
“Firstly, sex crime is not only in India. You can single out India, saying that is is the only one having this problem, but it happens everywhere.
“However, in a country like India, these issues are not highlighted. This case is being highlighted because it’s in the press. But for every 100,000 cases, only one gets highlighted. And it will carry on this way until we apply zero tolerance for sex crimes at any age, in every part of the country, for every caste.
“Here in India, we wake up to it every day. Every day it’s happening in our backyard. But it’s happening to ‘them,’ not to ‘us.’ Sensational cases increase visibility, but we need to acknowledge that statistics say every 22 minutes a woman or a child gets raped in this country, and we need not only to break our silence, but to act on it.
“Acting on it means to start work with our men and boys.
“We concentrate too much on the girls; how the girls should be strong, and how the girls should do this or that.
“Let’s start focusing how are we bringing up our sons, how the men are behaving in our country and our society. That would be one of the most important things to start off.”