Source: The Nation
A spate of exceptionally brutal rapes in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh has shocked India. Many of the victims were young girls.
For Sarika, 16, it was like any other day when she went out to the fields for her evening ablutions with her friend Chhaya. It was a cold February evening and it was pitch dark. “I was feeling a little scared so I wanted to get back quickly,” she tells me. On the way back, she says, she was attacked by Shivam and three other men from the village.
“Shivam grabbed my hand and asked me to marry him. I said: ‘No, how can I marry you? We live in the same village, you are like my brother.’
I kicked him and tried to run away.“With the help of his friends, he dragged me to a secluded area and began to assault me with knives and axes. I was conscious for some time, but once they cut me on my head and neck, I fainted. When I became conscious, I was in hospital.
”Sarika shows me her injuries - a fist-size wound on her scalp, her jaw which has been sewn together, her right hand which had to be re-attached, her right earlobe from where big chunks are missing, and long scars on her arms.Shivam has been arrested, but the others are still free. One told the BBC he had been wrongly accused.
A terrified Sarika and her family have abandoned their home and land in Fatehpur district’s Udrauli village to stay with relatives in another village nearly 45km (30 miles) away.
The assault on Sarika is one among the hundreds of rapes and attempted rapes this year in the state.
“It’s a very difficult situation here,” says Roop Rekha Verma of Sajhi Duniya (Shared World), a Lucknow-based organisation which works with women.
“There is a lot of violence: Crimes are escalating; gender problems are increasing; girls are being attacked, both in rural and urban areas,” she says.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state with 200 million people. It is also home to a staggering number of poor - official statistics show more than 60 million people here live on less than $1.25 (75p) a day.
Poverty also makes a community more vulnerable. Many victims were raped or assaulted when they went to the fields because, like millions of Indians, they have no access to toilets at home.
Uttar Pradesh has always had a high rate of crime, but it is the viciousness of the recent attacks that has stunned people most.
“These cases are so brutal that we wouldn’t have believed that they could happen - we thought such things could happen only in novels and films,” Mrs Verma says.
SR Darapuri, vice-president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Uttar Pradesh, says most of the rape victims are poor women and girls in remote villages. Many, he says, are low-caste Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”).
“I analysed the rape figures for 2007 and I found that 90% of victims were Dalits and 85% of Dalit rape victims were underage girls,” he says.
“It is well known that until not very long ago, in certain areas of the state’s southern Bundelkhand region, new brides of Dalit farmhands had to sleep with their rich, high-caste landowners on their wedding night.”
Mr Darapuri says the practice no longer exists - but Dalit women and girls remain vulnerable to predators.
Even though Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Kumari Mayawati, is a Dalit woman and caste discrimination has long been outlawed, campaigners say the state’s largely patriarchal society still uses feudal structures to ensure that women remain marginalised and oppressed.