Why rural sexual violence remains rife in India.

BBC News

India: Dabra is a typical village in India's rural Haryana state. It has narrow lanes with open drains and small houses built of brick and mud. Children play in the dirt, while men sit around smoking. Not many outsiders visit this poor farming community.But outside one of the houses two policemen stand on guard. Inside, a 16-year-old girl sits in one of the rooms surrounded by women. She is the reason the police are here. Six weeks ago, she was out walking on the street when she was abducted by a dozen men. 

"They dragged me inside the car and blindfolded me," she says, staring ahead, her voice steady but emotionless. "They took me by the side of a river. There, seven of them took turns to rape me. "The others kept watch." Her ordeal did not end there. The men filmed the assault on their mobile phones and circulated the images in this deeply conservative society. "Her father was so overcome with shame and the humiliation that he poisoned himself," the girl's cousin said. "We rushed him to the hospital but it was too late to save him." Nine of the alleged attackers have been arrested. But the others are still at large. Last year, 733 rapes were reported in Haryana. Most such assaults go unreported. Sexual violence against women takes place all over India. But what stands out in Haryana is the social attitude towards women. In a region that is just a short drive from Delhi, the modern capital of one of the word's rising powers, men still call the shots. In the rural district of Jind, a traditional village council meeting is under way. Inside a large hall, elderly men sit on wooden cots, smoking pipes. There is a not a single woman among them. And as they have for centuries, they pass judgement - on social mores, on women and on the recent spate of rapes. "I'll tell you the main reason for these rapes," explains Suresh Koth, one of the elders. "Just look at what's in the newspapers, on television. Topless women. This is what's corrupting our youth. After all this is India, not Europe." These are comments which cannot be dismissed lightly. These are the khaps, the all-male village councils that are tremendously powerful both socially and politically. "They often function like kangaroo courts, creating laws for society, determining what women must do, how people should behave," says rights activist Ranjana Kumari, of the Centre for Social Research. "And if people don't follow them, they intimidate them and threaten violence, including honour killings." Khaps are unelected bodies but politicians and governments are wary of taking them on. They can help to deliver votes during elections, which means they are often indispensable to politicians. But there is a growing sense of outrage across India at their pronouncements following the recent spate of rapes. One council elder was reported as saying that girls should be forced to marry young to protect them from rapists. Others routinely blame Western influences. Many people believe they have no place in a modern, democratic and liberal India. But taking them on is not going to be easy. Back in Dabra, the impact of what happened a few weeks ago is already apparent. "The girls in my neighbourhood have stopped going to school," the young rape victim says. "I am frightened too."