Just days after the Indian Supreme Court confirmed that the culprits in the Delhi 2012 gang rape case will be executed, another horrific gang rape has galvanized the country's attention on the problem of sexual violence against women.
A 23-year old woman from Sonipat—a town in the northern Haryana state of India about 50 kilometers from New Delhi—was abducted, gang raped, and murdered on May 9. By the time she was found two days later, stray dogs had eaten her face and part of her lower body.
The details of the case are utterly harrowing, and reminiscent of the devastating brutality of the infamous Delhi rape known across India as the Nirbhaya case. Police say that the victim was kidnapped from Sonipat and driven to the nearby city of Rohta. She was drugged, gang raped, tortured with sharp objects, and hit repeatedly in the face with a brick in an attempt to conceal her identity. Her killers subsequently ran over her body with a car to further disfigure the body, the Hindustan Times reports.
"The victim was first intoxicated by mixing sedatives in a soft drink. It is believed that the victim was raped and killed after she fell unconscious," Dr. SK Dhatarwal. who performed the post-mortem, told the Daily Mail. "Her head has been crushed brutally, [and] we have also found broken bones. The accused indulged in this brutal act to deface her."
Haryana police—perhaps wanting to avoid a repeat of the criticism that plagued their Delhi colleagues following their slow response to the 2012 Delhi gang rape—have been quick to make arrests. Two suspects are in police custody: a local man called Sumit Kumar, and an associate known only as Vikas. It is believed, however, that up to seven men in total may have been involved in the gang rape. "Sumit has confessed to the crime and told us that they killed the victim after raping her," a police spokesperson told the Mail.
The victim's family said that Kumar had allegedly stalked and harassed the woman after she refused to marry him. They also claimed they approached local police a month prior to her death to complain about Kumar's harassment, but no action was taken. (Police deny this account, saying that the family refused to submit a written complaint and later told police there was no need for action.)
Much has been written about India's problem of sexual violence, and following the Nirbhaya case, serious attempts have been made to strengthen legal protections. Comprehensive new anti-sexual violence laws were passed in 2013, which introduced the death penalty for fatal rape cases or attacks that cause a victim to fall into a "persistent vegetative state," as well as making it illegal for police officers to fail to investigate sexual assault cases. But critics say that legal protections—while welcome—do nothing to address the corrosive misogyny and culture of victim blaming that enables these crimes.
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"Just because India has passed stricter laws, it can appear like things are getting better," says Jayshree Bajoria of Human Rights Watch. "But we haven't actually seen implementation of these laws. The whole point of making the law stronger was meant to be centred on helping rape survivors, but things haven't played out as they should have. Unfortunately, these cases are not that rare."
Despite this, many cases go unreported for practical reasons. She says that it is likely that part of the reason the Sonipat gang rape is attracting such extensive coverage is due to its proximity to Delhi, India's capital.
"If you look at the national crime statistics, Haryana does have a large number of cases of sexual assault reported," Bajoria explains. But khap panchayats—unofficial courts made up of local elders—also exert great sway in Haryana. "Many times, they've issued these diktats that lead to more violence against women and are discriminatory towards women."
In October 2014, Haryana's own Chief Minister made much criticized comments that blamed women for India's rape problem. "Dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way," said Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar.
"Despite the fact that there were stricter laws and better policies put in place after 2013 to deal with sexual assault, we have not seen proper implementation to ensure that the police are held accountable and the criminal justice system responds to survivors in a non-judgmental manner," Bajoria says, explaining that safer public spaces, gender sensitivity training for law enforcement and elected officials, and more education for boys and girls in schools are desperately needed.
Until then, all of India is watching to see if justice will be served in Sonipat.