A police officer who was gang raped three weeks ago as she escorted her sister’s body to be cremated says the national outrage over the fatal sexual assault of a student in December has done little to change the lives of most Indian women.
The officer, who can’t be named under a law that grants victims anonymity, says rapes occur with virtual impunity and many of those assaulted feel social pressure not to report the crimes. The woman was traveling with her family when she was pulled out of their car by men wielding axes and then repeatedly raped in Jharkhand state in eastern India, police said.
“It is a crime to be born as a woman in India,” said the policewoman, 27, a mother of two girls and a widow after her husband was shot dead by Maoist insurgents in 2011. “You always live in fear as anything can happen to you at any time.”
A New Delhi court found four men guilty today of gang raping and murdering a medical student in a case that shocked India. The attack on the 23-year-old in the capital last year spurred weeks of nationwide protests and triggered an unprecedented debate about sexual violence in the world’s largest democracy.
The guilty men may face the death penalty after an eight-month trial in a specially-convened, fast-track court. Arguments on the sentencing begin tomorrow. The victim, who suffered internal injuries from being repeatedly violated with an iron bar, died two weeks after the attack.
The family of the victim slammed a juvenile court’s decision last month to sentence a teenager, who was under the age of 18 at the time of the attack, to three years in a reform home after finding him guilty. The punishment was the maximum allowed for a juvenile under Indian law.
The alleged ring leader of the December attack committed suicide in March after using a carpet to hang himself from a ceiling grill, prison authorities said. His family and lawyer said he was murdered.
Even after the assault in Delhi prompted politicians to pass a law that imposes tougher sentences on men who commit sexual assaults, India is struggling to tame the violent and chauvinistic attitudes that leave women vulnerable to harassment and rape.
“These types of incidents won’t stop,” the policewoman said. “I worry about what society my two daughters will grow up in. I worry about what will happen to them, what their future will be, who will give them security.”
The officer was traveling along a highway to her village shortly after midnight on Aug. 22 with the body of her sister, who had been shot dead by criminals in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, one of India’s poorest states, close to the border with Bangladesh.
A gang of five men blocked the road with boulders about 5 kilometers (3 miles) outside the town of Latehar, she said. The men ordered the six family members in their vehicle to hand over their money and gold. Frustrated with their lack of possessions the men grew angry and decided to rape her, she said.
Even after the woman said she was a police officer and her dead relative was in a car behind them, and despite pleas from her father and brother to spare her, two of the men took her into the woods close to the road and took turns to rape her, she said.
“They told us if I don’t go with them, we will have to take another dead body,” she said in a telephone interview.
Five men have been charged with rape and robbery, Alok Kumar, deputy superintendent of police of Latehar, said in an interview. The defendants are between 20 and 22 years old and have confessed to the crime, he said.
The attack occurred the same night as a photographer working as an intern at a magazine was gang raped in an abandoned textile mill in Mumbai, an incident that triggered street protests and reignited the debate about women’s safety. The assault on the policewoman in a rural area received almost no media attention in the country.
“In urban areas there is at least a recognition that women should not be attacked,” said Jyotsna Chatterji, director of the Joint Women’s Programme, a New Delhi-based advocacy group that promotes women’s rights. “In rural areas there is a patriarchal mindset and that mindset has not yet been replaced by the constitution. So women are easy targets and have no voice to complain.”
There has been a 16 percent jump in the number of reported rapes nationally in India in the five years ending 2012, and a 902 percent jump since 1971, according to police records. In the first six months of 2013, reported rapes in New Delhi soared to 806 from 330 in the same period a year earlier. The rise may reflect greater confidence in reporting assaults, police said.
About 75 percent of rapes in India occur in rural areas, according to research by Mrinal Satish, an academic at the National Law University in New Delhi who looked at cases in the Criminal Law Journal between 1983 and 2009.
Almost one in four men surveyed in six countries in Asia said they committed rape at least once, according to a study published in The Lancet Global Health journal today based on interviews with more than 10,000 men.
In Jharkhand, the police woman’s late husband, a fellow police officer, was murdered when a convoy escorting a member of parliament was ambushed by Maoist guerillas who say the government is exploiting villagers to gain resources. Eleven police officers were killed in the attack. She was offered a job with the police as part of the compensation.
The woman, who says she identified the five men in a police lineup, returned to work two weeks after being raped. Although she says that the incident means she has been left psychologically scarred, she plans to use the incident to spur her to fight for the protection of other women.
“I am trying to gather my courage,” the woman said. “I am a police officer, I should not be fearful, I have responsibility to my department and to society. It is my job to fight this evil.”