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Indian Teenager Dies After Setting Herself on Fire Over Alleged Sexual Harassment

In a statement, the girl described being driven to attempt suicide by four local boys who stalked and tormented her relentlessly over recent weeks.

by VICE News
Aug 11 2015, 10:35pm

Photo by Tsering Topgyal

A teenage girl in the Indian state of Punjab died today from burns covering some 75 percent of her body that she sustained after setting herself on fire, a day after she told authorities that she was driven to do so by days of sexual harassment at the hands of a group of boys. As the story shifts from local reports to the international media, her death is bringing renewed attention to the culture of abuse against women in India.

On August 5, the 16-year-old girl from the village of Kalbanjara village in the district of Sangrur landed in the hospital with severe burns. Her parents originally claimed that she had burned herself badly while cooking, but over the weekend she explained to her brother from her hospital bed that she had poured kerosene over her body and set herself alight while home alone.

The girl was Dalit, from the lowest hierarchy of India's caste system. In a statement that she gave late on Monday to a judicial magistrate, she accused four local boys of stalking and tormenting her relentlessly over recent weeks with indecent remarks and lewd conduct. She endured the mistreatment along the roughly six miles that she walked daily to school.

"I couldn't bear the humiliation. They crossed all limits," she reportedly told the magistrate. "They did things I can't even share with you."

Related: A Rape Survivor in India Must Balance a Heavy Rock on Her Head to Prove Her Purity

The teenager's brother revealed the information to Indian news outlets on Monday, while also making public a testimony from his sister that he captured on video at the hospital.

"She was depressed for the past two weeks," he said. "We had asked her what was bothering her but she never disclosed anything."

The girl tried explaining her reluctance before she succumbed to her injuries.

"I didn't tell my parents as I feared that my family would stop me from going to school," she said. She had aspired to become a doctor.

Her brother claimed that the authorities had mishandled her case, suggesting that they had put off collecting her statement. Officials counter that they registered the case immediately and "informed a magistrate."

Related: Women Feel Unsafe as Threat of Sexual Violence Pervades Everyday Life in India

Charges have proceeded swiftly since, with police moving to arrest the boys. One of them is already in custody. The group faces penalties for making obscene gestures to a woman, outraging female modesty, abetting the suicide attempt of a minor, and violating the country's Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

A similar incident occurred in April in the state of Uttar Pradesh after a man and four of his friends allegedly gang raped his 14-year-old niece. Two days after the attack, the teen tried to kill herself by dousing herself in kerosene and lighting herself on fire. She survived, but sustained severe burns over much of her body. Authorities arrested the accused after the girl's father filed a complaint.

The case in Sangrur also brings to mind the death of a 16-year-old girl in Calcutta on New Year's Eve in 2013. She was gang raped twice and intimidated by her abusers to drop charges against them, and later said that she was set on fire by two people who were close to the accused. Her death triggered protests the following January that brought issues over the police handling of sexual assault cases in India to light.

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