The Northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has been rocked in recent weeks by a series of rapes and hangings, many involving very young women. The victims have been assaulted by groups of men before being strung up from trees and left to die — sometimes right across from the police station, in a stunning display of spite and confidence.
A casual search of the news for information about rapes and murders related to sexual violence in India reveals a stunning and disturbing array of stories, like that of a woman who was raped at a police station when she came to negotiate her husband’s release. The proliferation of stories would seem to suggest an uptick in violence, but in fact, the situation appears to be more complicated. Sexual violence in India is nothing new, argues Geeta Pandey for the BBC — but now, it’s being reported to law enforcement, and the media are covering it, because regional and global interest in the subject has been sparked. That means that on the surface, it looks like India has a newly-emerging rape problem, but actually, it’s nothing new.
Especially in states like Uttar Pradesh, there are large numbers of low-income women in a lower social position. These members of society are extremely vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation because they have few resources to turn to when it comes to protecting themselves and seeking assistance. Historically, many women did not report rapes to law enforcement agencies because they view police as the problem. When police officers aren’t ignoring rape reports or tacitly condoning rape, they were committing rapes themselves.
That’s changing, however, as the Indian government has cracked down on sexual assault, passed harsher laws and pushed law enforcement to do well. Paradoxically, claims Pandey, this may, chillingly, explain the hangings in Uttar Pradesh. Thanks to increased consequences for rape convictions, and more aggressive pursuit of suspects, men may be hanging their victims to eliminate the suspects who are key to revealing the facts of a rape case. While this may not be true in all instances, the thought that it might be true even in some is disturbing, and highlights the difficulty of this unique problem. The government can’t and shoudn’t back down on addressing rape, but it doesn’t want to create a situation in which men are willing to kill the women they abuse to reduce their risk of being identified and prosecuted.
Hanging also could be a way of sending a message or comment. It’s an extremely public way to commit murder, especially when done in the middle of a town or village. Much like lynching in the United States, these hangings may be about something more than simple murder. They could be illustrations of contempt, hatred, or power, and they may be designed to silence women advocating for women’s rights and more action on sexual assault. In an India where the entire country is joining, and getting noisy, to fight sexual assault, these crimes are a sobering reminder of the dangers of being at the forefront of social change.
Photo credit: Koshy Koshy