Despite activism, India gang rapes persist

ANNIE GOWEN AND RAMA LAKSHMI
Last updated 11:31 17/12/2013
india
Annie Gowen / Washington Post
A street in PJR Colony, the Hyderabad slum where both both of the alleged perpetrators of the October 18 gang rape lived.

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The chauffeur's boss was out of town, so the driver called a friend and said "let's have some fun" - which police say meant finding a woman to rape.

Hopping into a luxury car, the two soon spotted their victim - a young software engineer leaving a shopping mall. They lured her into the car by pretending it was a taxi, police said, took her to a remote spot and raped her with such ferocity that she bled for hours.

Much has changed in India since the December night last year when another young woman was fatally gang-raped and murdered in New Delhi, a case that shocked the country and sparked protests against abuse. Parliament passed stricter laws on rape and sexual harassment. Police have become more sympathetic to women. Help lines have been flooded with calls.

But rapes by gangs of young men have continued with a disturbing frequency, even though the men convicted in the New Delhi case were sentenced to death by hanging. The reasons behind it are wide-ranging, from rising economic inequality to an inefficient judicial system.

But one thing is clear: There is still a widespread sense of impunity among aggressors.

After the two Hyderabad men were arrested, they admitted having sex with the woman but showed little remorse, police said.

"I said, 'Are you not scared?' " recalled C.V. Anand, the police chief of the Cyberabad region, a large district that rings the central city. "They said, 'We never felt we would get caught. She would not say anything. Indian women can't come out about such things.' "

Just as Anand was giving his interview, TV news flashed photos of another gang rape nearby - a teenage girl had been held captive by two older youths and assaulted repeatedly for 10 days. High-profile attacks have occurred in other cities, including Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as in rural states such as Haryana.

"Unless the mentality changes, this is not going to go away," said Purnima Nagaraja, a consultant psychiatrist who has worked with hundreds of rape survivors in the area.

'A MANLY THING'

In the last 20 years, Hyderabad has grown from a sleepy town to a thriving hub that built landscaped business parks to attract IT companies such as IBM and Facebook. Nagaraja said common sexual misconduct has worsened from "eve-teasing" - the term used in India for sexual taunting - to rape and, in the last five years or so, gang rapes.

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She attributes this trend - where packs of young men rape for sport - to economic disparity between the rich and the poor and the move of uneducated migrants from rural areas to cities, where they often find themselves unmoored after village life where males hold sway.

"In India, men rape because it's a manly thing to subjugate the weaker sex," Nagaraja said. "Our culture puts so much emphasis on 'being a man,' which creates huge insecurities for men as they see women's status rising in society."

As cellphone use has spread, the availability of pornography and violent movies also has increased. Nagaraja has studied more than 2000 young men ages 15 to 25 and says that 58 percent of them watch sadomasochistic pornography.

'NOTHING HAS CHANGED'

And India, which has long favoured its sons, has a widening gender gap as a result of the widespread practice of aborting female babies. Like other developing countries, India has a young population struggling to find decent work.

"There are too many men with nothing to do, just hanging around all day, passing comments on women," said Uma Sharma, an activist in a New Delhi slum. "We thought all the protests after last year's gang rape will instill fear in men. We watched it on television. But nothing has changed. This gets worse every day."

She and other new activists marched in outrage to the police station after investigators failed to file charges in a sexual attack on a 15-year-girl; the activists prevailed, but got little support from the men in their community.

"When we go for the women's committee meeting, they mock us," Sharma said. "'Just because you have a committee, you think you can change the world?' "

In rural areas, lower-caste women are often raped by members of the dominant caste. And in recent months, victims have accused high-profile men - from a former judge to the editor of a well-known magazine - of sexual misconduct.

1700 CASES PENDING

Although India passed tighter sexual assault laws this year, prosecutions can be achingly slow. Hoping to speed up, the government created fast-track rape courts in New Delhi, but they are overflowing. As of November, these courts had convicted 178 attackers and acquitted 407, with more than 1,700 cases pending.

Their conviction rates - around one-third - aren't any higher than the regular courts, according to the city's prosecution agency.

"It takes so long to convict the guilty," said Prabhans Mahato, 32, the father of a five-year-old girl who was held for 40 hours and raped repeatedly by a neighbour this year. She required several surgeries afterward. "People feel there is no law at all."

LOOKING FOR A VICTIM

The accused in the Hyderabad attack, Vedicharla Satish, 30, and Nemmadi Venkateswarlu, 28, were born in villages to lower-caste families, had little education and had come to the city looking for better lives, authorities said. The two became friends in PJR Colony, a working-class complex of dusty pink concrete that had once been a slum. Satish was trying to save money to buy his own auto-rickshaw in order to better support his wife and young son, family members said.

The case, which roiled that region's IT community, has striking similarities to the fatal attack in Delhi on December 16 of last year. Both victims were educated aspirants to India's middle class, raped by men who, posing as public transport drivers, were deliberately looking for victims. The police called the victim in Hyderabad "Abhaya," similar to the pseudonym "Nirbhaya" that was given the Delhi victim. Both mean "fearless" in Hindi.

The two men were cruising around an area called HITEC City when they spotted their victim, a 22-year-old software engineer, texting on her cellphone.

Authorities said that, after Satish and Venkateswarlu hoodwinked the young woman into the car, they held her captive on a terrifying highway journey before raping her and letting her off at her home around 1:30am, threatening to return and harm her if she told anyone what had happened. Even as they raped her, they addressed her as "madam," a sign of respect to someone of higher class, police said.

BLAMING THE VICTIM

Family members said Satish later told them the sex had been consensual. Neighbours - both male and female - had other criticism: Why had she not cried out? Or used her cellphone to call for help?

"I'm angry at my husband," said Satish's wife, Mangula, 27. "I'm there for his sexual needs. Why should he go to another woman?"

When police, who were called by the woman's boyfriend, arrived at her home, she first denied she had been raped. She finally broke down and described what had happened when questioned alone by a sympathetic female police officer, who had seen a pool of blood on the floor.

"I can see tears in her eyes," said Janaki Sharmila, a deputy commissioner of police. "She didn't want to reveal it to anybody. She was concerned her parents would commit suicide or take her back to the village."

Eventually, however, Sharmila was able to convince the woman to file a complaint against the men, who were detained and paraded before the media in black hoods. Formal rape charges are expected soon.

In the days since the attack, police have launched a women's safety program, adding 40 more public buses along with closed-circuit monitoring cameras and awareness campaigns for both sexes at local universities.

"Sensitising and stringent punishment" are the only roads to real change, Sharmila believes. It could take years.

The victim's firm quietly transferred her to another city, where she lives with her boyfriend, who recently got a visa to the United States. She is hoping to follow him there soon, to begin a new life.

-Washington Post

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