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Rural Indian women still waiting for justice

16 December 2013, 18:43

New Delhi - As India erupted in protests over the fatal gang-rape of a student, teenager Seema suffered her own horrifying abuse at the hands of a pack of men. Six months later, she poured kerosene on herself and burned to death.

Abducted and raped on New Year's Day in her village two hours from the capital Delhi, Seema had been determined to bring her six attackers to justice. But she received little support from their neighbours or the police, said her tearful mother.

"She was brave and tried to fight it out. But I think it was all too much for her in the end," she recalled, clutching a red woollen sweater that had been her daughter's favourite.

The attack on Seema came amid national outrage over the gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on 16 December last year.

The student, set upon in New Delhi while she was on a bus home from the cinema with a male friend, died two weeks later from her injuries, some of them inflicted with an iron rod.

The savage attack spurred intense debate about the way India treats its women, and led to a stiffening of punishments for sexual abuse. Optimists called it a "turning point" for women's rights.

But the case of Seema, whose name has been changed for legal reasons, shows the bitter struggles that still exist for victims of rape - and the yawning chasm between rural and urban India.

"The Delhi case gave us courage. We felt the country cared for its women," said Seema's mother, as tears streamed down her face.

"Thousands turned up [on the streets] seeking justice for the Delhi woman. We don't know why nobody is speaking for us."

Waiting for justice

Although 15-year-old Seema was determined to see her rapists held to account, numerous visits to the police and blame-the-victim taunts from neighbours started "playing havoc" with her mind, her mother said.

The police still appear to be dragging their heels on the case, having yet to file a charge-sheet or arrest most of the attackers.

So far only two accused have been detained, while calls by AFP to the local police station in the state of Harayana and the most senior officer in the district went unanswered.

The contrast could not be starker with the Delhi gang-rape case, which was fast-tracked in the courts and saw the guilty convicted within seven months of trial. Four adult attackers have been sentenced to death.

While the Delhi rape dominated the headlines and struck a chord with the middle-classes, Seema's horrors were virtually lost in a deluge of sexual crimes reported across the country after the 16 December case.

The statistics for 2013 are not out yet, but a source in the National Crime Record Bureau told AFP that the number of nationwide rape cases would "definitely exceed" the figure of 24 923 registered last year.

Mousumi Kundu, the development head at the KD Singh Foundation charity which has been providing free legal aid to Seema's family, said there were still some positives to be drawn from her case.

"The fact that Seema and her mother showed the courage to come forward and report the crime is in itself a huge step," Kundu told AFP.

"The social stigma attached to sex crimes is very severe in rural pockets. That the family has spoken out despite the social barriers is really something which must be lauded."

Kundu, who has a long experience of working with rape victims, said the family's courage reflected a sense of "awakening" after the Delhi gang-rape.

Some campaigners say the rise in the number of reported attacks should actually be welcomed as it shows how women feel emboldened to shrug off the shame and humiliation traditionally associated with rape.

But others remain more guarded in their optimism.

Rape epidemic

"The society is indeed becoming more sensitive to rape victims now, but there is still a long way to go. You cannot deny there is a rape epidemic in the country," said Ranjana Kumari, who heads the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research.

She believes scores of other rapes have gone unreported in the past year as the victims were often women from the lowest strata of society.

"In the case of the Delhi incident, it was the location of the crime and the fact that the victim was educated and went to watch a movie like so many of us do that moved and shocked people," she said.

"Even as we are speaking, women in rural areas are being raped and there is no one to speak for them. They are doomed to suffer in silence."

Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar, a member of the National Commission for Women, said bias towards victims meant many rural women were not even aware of their legal rights.

"We have to reach out to them and make them count."

Seema's relatives are determined to keep fighting on her behalf, even if it means endless sessions in courts that can drag on for years.

"We don't know if we will get any justice at all," said her mother, looking at a framed school portrait of Seema she held in her hands - with the date of her first-born's death written underneath.



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