They belong to low castes and are fair game: In India, brutal gang rapes of Dalit girls make headlines. Subsequently, the perpetrators are turned into victims and the victims into perpetrators. Solutions are not in sight.
They kidnapped the girl in broad daylight, tied her up, gagged her and raped her. Then the seven young men released the 16-year-old, who is called Reshma in local media. After the brutal rape, Reshma kept silent for fear that her tormentors would kill her family and show footage of her ordeal around the Indian village, as they had threatened to do. Because in Dabra, a small patch in the northern state of Haryana, rape is a disgrace to a woman.
Normally, the story would have ended there: a small Indian village, a conservative society and a rigid caste order. The victim: a poor Dalit girl from the Untouchables caste. The perpetrators: seven boys who belong to a higher caste. But the young men bragged about their crime, showing off photos and clips of the act on their cell phones. When the father saw the pictures, he took his own life out of shame and despair by drinking weedkiller.
Dalits, who are still at the bottom of the social pyramid in India, are often victims of violence – women and girls are particularly affected. The number of gang rape cases is increasing. Rural Haryana, which borders the capital New Delhi, is relatively rich by Indian standards. But despite the proximity to the modern world, a conservative, misogynistic worldview prevails, especially in the villages.
The state has one of the most extreme gender distributions in India: On 1.000 boys only 830 girls are born. This suggests that many families in Haryana are taking advantage of the new prosperity to identify the sex of a child before it is born and to purposefully abort girls, even though this practice has long been illegal.
Dalits own little land and work as laborers. They can't afford prenatal diagnostics. Not so the landowners, who, like the seven rapists, mostly belong to the Jat caste. In Dabra, Dalits are considered unclean among Jats – they would not share food, drink, dishes or glasses with them. But in the case of rape, this separation does not apply.
The rape case caused a stir in India after Dalits organized a protest and publicized the case. The head of the ruling Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi – India's most powerful politician – visited a family in Haryana whose 16-year-old daughter had doused herself with kerosene and burned herself to death after being raped by three men. She, too, came from a low caste.
Police officers turn victims into perpetrators
"I know that such crimes are on the rise, not only in Haryana, but in other states as well," Gandhi said, calling for harsh punishments for the perpetrators. But rapes in Haryana continue: at least 15 cases have been reported in the past two months. The number of unreported cases is much higher.
Politicians, village elders and police officers are looking for explanations. But most of them turn the perpetrators into victims and the victims into perpetrators. For example, former state chief minister Om Prakash Chautala proposed lowering the legal age for marriage from 18 to 15 to stop rapes. "In the past, during the time of Mughal rule, daughters were married off early to protect them from such cruelty," he argued.
Local politician Puran Singh Dabra blames film, television and the Internet for the rapes. Parents allowed their children to consume too much media. "They lose the sense of good and evil, and then things like this happen". Others even see the advance of Western food such as fast food as the reason.
Such declarations are of little use to the victims. 16-year-old Reshma from Dabra continues to wait for justice. Although several of their rapists have been arrested, there have been no charges yet. The chances are not good. Only around ten percent of all reported rapists are convicted in India.