Nuanced debate about sexual assault can ring hollow when it comes to the absolute hopelessness of certain crimes. The gang rape of Bitiya*, a schoolgirl from Bijnor who joined the panel on sexual violence at the Women in the World Delhi summit today, is just such a crime.
Bitiya was targeted for being born as a lower caste girl in a predominantly Thakur village, where caste rapes are common and easily silenced by the powerful. In a horrific intersection of sexual violence and virtual exploitation, Bitiya’s rapists also made a video recording of the assault, which they then pawned to the local video store for a dollar.
When she finally told her family what happened, Bitiya’s enraged father was told by the village to let the matter go lest the boys release the video. It is unknown whether he was shown the video, but the incident broke him completely. Soon after he learned the full extent of the assault on his daughter, Bitiya’s father consumed poison and killed himself. “What gives you the courage to go on?” moderator Barkha Dutt asked Bitiya and her mother on stage.
“We don’t care what happens to us anymore,” her mother said. “I will not let this happen to any more daughters again.”
It is the quiet courage of women like Bitiya and her mother, supported by men like her grandfather (who received a standing ovation from the audience), that is transforming the conversation around sexual violence in India. While vigilante movements like the Gulabi Gang (a group of pink-sari clad female fighters), and scores of NGOs are trying to repair the situation on the ground in the villages of Haryana, there is little they can do if the abused woman chooses to remain silent. But the dogged persistence of young girls like Bitiya, who refuse to be bought out, threatened or cajoled into submission, is forcing the slow wheels of the judiciary into motion.
“The struggle begins once a woman opens her mouth,” Madhavi Kuckreja, founder of Vananangana, an NGO based on fighting caste discrimination in UP, said. “She is fighting the police, the judiciary and everyone that is attempting to mediate on the behalf of perpetrators.” Kuckreja also made the crucial point that several of the women speaking up against sexual oppression are from lower class backgrounds — “the silence is yet to be broken in upper class and upper caste homes.”
Some of this silence can be explained by the fact more than 90 percent of the perpetrators of various forms of sexual violence in India are men known to their victims, people who already have access to the victim’s trust. The more severe punishments against rape become, the more afraid some women are of sending relatives, neighbors and employers to jail. Most crucially, marital rape is still not recognised as a crime in India, and it is routinely dismissed by politicians and the police alike as an “internal family matter.”
“Recognizing marital rape is crucial to unpacking Indian masculinity,” lawyer Menaka Guruswamy pointed out.
“I remember covering the gang rape of a Rajasthani woman called Bhanwari Devi as a young reporter, and 22 years later, she is still to receive justice,” moderator Barkha Dutt told the audience at the conclusion of the panel. “If the law fails us, is vigilante violence the only resort?” The audience screamed in support of Dutt’s question. But Guruswamy had the last word: “If we give up on the law, we give up on the promise of this country,” she said, “and that would mean perpetuating the same cycle of traditional violence that is being perpetrated on us.”