Outside The Big City, A Harrowing Sexual Assault In Rural India A gang rape case in India's capital has attracted international attention. But sexual assaults are a nationwide problem, and authorities are often dismissive of victims, particularly in rural areas. One woman tells her story.

Outside The Big City, A Harrowing Sexual Assault In Rural India

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. The fatal gang rape of a young Indian woman on a bus in Delhi ignited public outrage over violence against women in India's capital. Now let's widen the lens. Sexual assault is just as prevalent in rural India. Male-dominated village councils influence attitudes toward women, and caste conflict contributes to violence against women. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on one woman's ordeal to find justice in the north Indian state of Haryana.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Indian law makes it a crime to divulge the identity of a victim of rape. We use the pseudonym Roopa to identity the wife and mother of four at the heart of this story. We also alter her voice. Roopa's family lives in this one-room hut. They are Dalits, the lowest tier of India's social strata, once called untouchables.

Adjoining their hut is a stall for the animal fodder they raise to eke out a living - like their neighbors, who warily eye our arrival. What happened in this village is a source of tension and shame. Seated on the woven rope bed from where she was snatched the night of November 28th, Roopa says she and her children had just fallen asleep when five men scaled the wall outside, pushed open the door, and dragged her to an alcove past the family cows and fodder.

ROOPA: (Through translator) They clamped my mouth shut, and switched off the lights. Then the five of them raped me repeatedly. I couldn't scream for help. I was very scared - so scared that I didn't understand where I was. Two of them even had pistols.

MCCARTHY: Roopa says she lost track of what was happening as the men battered her petite frame. Her husband was at work. But her youngest children awoke and not seeing her, began to cry.

ROOPA: (Through translator) When they heard the children crying, these men ran for it.

MCCARTHY: The children discovered her, disheveled and disoriented.

ROOPA: (Through translator) My eldest daughter got up; and then the younger ones, they came. They saw me and realized that something had gone terribly wrong. I held them, and I cried and cried.

MCCARTHY: Police Superintendent Viveck Sharma says of the five accused in the gang rape, one is in jail, two have absconded, and two others allegedly jumped in front of a train and killed themselves within hours of being named. More commonly, rape victims distraught over shame or callous police have committed suicide.

Such is the stigma that experts say a fraction of rapes in India are actually reported. But even government records for 2011 show an average of 61 rapes a month in Haryana, a state of 25 million people. Eight other states have a higher rate of rape but Savita Berwal, secretary general of the All India Democratic Women's Association in Haryana, says here, gang rape is common and becoming more violent.

SAVITA BERWAL: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: It goes beyond rape, she says. Now, 5- and 6-year-old girls are being sexually assaulted by three or four men at a time. There are cases where 10 to 12 men have descended on one woman. In a double attack in a village nearby, Berwal says, the daughter was raped by a gang of men, who then raped and killed her mother.

Roopa's case is one in a recent string of rapes targeting Dalit women. She says she knew the two men who are at large: a distant cousin, Fauji, and a man named Kallah. Fauji is a Dalit. The other four were members of the powerful Jat caste that dominates politics and agriculture in Haryana. Author Prem Chowdry has studied Haryana's patriarchal social structure. She says Jats have historically abused Dalit women as a means of maintaining dominance.

PREM CHOWDRY: If she is raped, then it is the honor of the entire family and caste and community that is at stake. So it soon becomes a weapon to control the Dalits.

MCCARTHY: V. Geetha writes on caste and gender, and says caste inequities provide cover to men who sexually abuse women of lower standing.

V. GEETHA: There's no sense of having crossed a line if the man's from a dominant or upper caste - assaults a Dalit woman. He thinks it's his right. So that immediately sets her situation apart from that of any other woman.

MCCARTHY: Roopa's case was filed under a sweeping law known as the Prevention of Atrocities of Scheduled Castes, or Dalits. Police Superintendent Sharma says the law is automatically triggered if there is a heinous crime against a Dalit, but denies there is any caste conflict in this case. Roopa herself affixes blame on the one Dalit in the group, Fauji. He phoned her shortly after the attack, when he learned she had confronted his relatives over the rape. Are you trying to get me killed? he asked.

ROOPA: (Through translator) And I said yes, I'm trying to get you killed. To which he replied: There's nobody in this village strong enough to have me killed.

MCCARTHY: Haryana's male-dominated culture deprives women of their property rights, and even life. The social preference for sons has produced the most skewed ratio of males to females in the country - 1,000 boys to 877 girls - as couples abort female fetuses. All-male councils known as khap panchayats have prohibited intercaste marriages. The penalty for such unions can be honor killing.

More recently, some Khaps want to ban girls from wearing jeans or using cellphones. Shishpal Beniwal is the general secretary of a Khap Panchayat, representing some 300,000 people in Haryana. He rejects bans on blue jeans, but sounds ready to blame the victim when asked about the Khaps' attitudes toward sexual violence.

Does the Khap Panchayat have a set of ideas about what the roots of rape might be in Haryana state?

SHISHPAL BENIWAL: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: The general thinking in Haryana is that the number of rapes is negligible - 1 or 2 percent, he says. Girls and boys have a lot of freedom. When girls go to boys' dorm rooms and something happens, half the fault is the girls.' It's an unsafe place. With gang rapes, we usually find that both sides are to blame. It's never one-sided, Beniwal says.

Into this climate of denial steps Roopa. She says the local police accused her of making the story up. It was not until Police Superintendant Vivek Sharma intervened that she says authorities registered her case. As for her own community, she is now shunned.

ROOPA: (Through translator) Nobody is talking to me anymore. None of my women friends is talking to me. What they think is, why should I get involved in this mess? Wouldn't my name be dragged through the mud as well?

MCCARTHY: If friends have deserted her, her family has not. They've encouraged her struggle in a system that is stacked against her gender, caste and class. Roopa says since the attack that has left her in continual pain, her family's precarious existence on the bottom rung of Indian society has gotten even worse.

ROOPA: (Crying) (Through translator) For two months, my husband has been sitting at home. What will we eat? He's not been able to find work. We're poor people. We can't afford to remain unemployed for more than four to five days.

MCCARTHY: Roopa has received money - some $1,200 - to defray the costs of her case, under the law aimed at ensuring social inclusion of Dalits. But this young mother is anguished over delays that she says mock justice. More than two months have passed since the attack, with no hearing in her case on the horizon.

ROOPA: (Crying) (Through translator) If I don't get justice, there's no point in living. It's better to die than to live like this. At least I won't be crying and suffering every day.

MCCARTHY: But in her despair, Roopa is reminded of her family. They are with me, she says, so I must live.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.


INSKEEP: And just a reminder: NPR departed from its practice of not using pseudonyms here because Indian law prohibits the use of the woman's real name. We determined the story would be too hard to follow without a pseudonym.

This is NPR News.

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