Child rape victim jailed in India: A journalist’s “immunity” breaks down
Her story is like so many I have heard in my years of reporting on the plight of girls and women in India.
It is a story of rape. A story of police insensitivity, of ostracism, of fear.
I think I’ve heard enough of these stories to be immune, unaffected by the tale of suffering that each victim recounts in the aftermath of her sexual assault.
But I am wrong — perhaps because this girl is just 10 years old.
Her vulnerability is overwhelming as the shy, dark-skinned little girl with sun-bleached black bobbed hair sits nervously on a charpoy, in a pretty turquoise salwar-kameez with bright pink trim.
Asking anyone to speak about being raped is difficult in any circumstances; asking a village schoolgirl — with little exposure to the world at large, with her entire family gathered around her, with a television camera pointing at her — can challenge even the most hardened journalist.
Clumsily I skirt around it, asking “soft” questions about her village, a few hours’ drive from New Delhi, her friends, and what she wants to be when she grows up, before eventually alluding to the events of the evening of April 7.
“I went to buy vegetables for my mother. When I was coming back, he called out to me and came after me. He took me to a small hut used to store dung cakes. He put a cloth in my mouth and raped me,” she says, almost whispering, looking down at her small fragile hands.
Her parents found her later, her clothes soiled, her face covered with dirt, they say. Yet when they took her to the police station in the city of Bulandshahr, her ordeal worsened when she — the victim – was locked in a police cell.
Her family says they were made to wait 12 hours before a police officer registered their complaint. The girl was then sent for a medical examination, where, she says, she was slapped by a female constable who told her to “tell the truth”.
When she was sent to the women’s police station, she was put in a small cell and kept there until the local media were tipped off and rushed there to capture the images.
Television news channels across India broadcast the blurred pictures of the girl locked in a cell, over the caption “10-year-old rape victim jailed.”
The family say the police behaved so insensitively because the family belongs to a low-caste community, while the man accused of the rape – who has been charged and is in detention awaiting trial — is a member of a higher caste. He denies the charge.
It’s a common story in India, where the caste system has deep roots and remains strong, a social evil that persists almost 70 years after independence.
Local police deny any caste bias, but have admitted wrongdoing on the part of the officers on duty, four of whom have been suspended and charged with illegal confinement of a minor.
The man charged with the rape may wait months or years for his trial.
The girl’s ordeal continues.
The family lives in constant fear and deprivation. The higher-caste villagers have cut their power supply and stopped them from getting water from the village tap or collecting fodder for their cattle from nearby fields.
“They threaten us. They want us to take back the complaint. They say they will do the same to my other daughters if we don’t,” says Saroj, the girl’s mother.
The threats are considered so serious that two police constables now stand guard outside the victim’s home around the clock.
But this provides little relief for the victim, who has not stepped outside the four walls of her family compound since being raped more than two months ago.
“I don’t want to go out any more. I feel scared,” she says, as the tears stream down her cheeks and she sobs uncontrollably into her hands.
I realise I’ve pushed her over the edge and end the interview. As I close my notebook and go over to hug her, I realise that I am not as immune to such emotions as I had thought.
CAPTION: A 10-year-old Indian girl sits on a charpoy in Mirpur village, 4 km from the northern city of Bulandshahr on June 5, 2013. She was locked in a police cell after complaining to police that a neighbour had raped her on April 7, 2013. Credit: Nita Bhalla/Thomson Reuters Foundation