Fears are mounting for the survival of a 15-year-old girl who was allegedly set on fire by a family member accused of raping her while she was fighting for her life at a hospital in northern India.
In a case that has shocked the country, police in the state of Uttar Pradesh arrested an 18-year-old man and his mother on Monday on charges of attempted murder for allegedly dousing the girl with kerosene and setting her on fire when he found out she was pregnant. to police officials.
“It is critical. The doctors are trying to save her, but there is no hope that she will survive,” the girl’s mother told CNN on Thursday.
CNN is not naming the alleged victim or her mother to protect her identity.
The girl suffered burns on about 80% of her body, according to Dr SP Singh, who is treating her.
“He’s not out of danger yet,” he said.
On average, India reports a rape every 17 minutes, according to the latest government figures, and campaigners say the girl’s case highlights how entrenched misogynistic and patriarchal values are in the country of 1.3 billion.
The problem is exacerbated in rural India, where women remain uneducated and the stigma surrounding sexual assault is widespread, they say.
“This case shows how young girls are still at high risk of sexual violence,” said Jayna Kothari, senior advocate of India’s Supreme Court. “The fact is that these cases are becoming more and more violent, because the perpetrators are not held accountable. People continue to act with impunity because there is no fear.”
The girl was allegedly raped by her 18-year-old cousin about three months ago, after which she became pregnant, according to Kamlesh Kumar Dixit, a senior police official in Uttar Pradesh and the girl’s mother.
But the girl did not tell her mother about the alleged assault, and instead, like many survivors of sexual assault, lived in silence.
When her mother found out about her pregnancy, she agreed to marry the victim to her alleged attacker.
“My sister-in-law (the mother of the alleged rapist) said that they would pay for the abortion and get married. Since we belong to the same family, we have resolved the issue,” said the girl’s mother, adding that she now wants to hang the alleged rapist.
The idea of a victim marrying her alleged rapist is unusual in India, where sexual assault and pregnancy out of wedlock are viewed with “a deep sense of shame and stigma,” according to lawyer Kothari.
“It is difficult to change these backward attitudes,” he said. “Girls are seen as a burden. She would face violence and her family would face violence, so the family would want to marry her.”
But when the girl went to her alleged rapist’s house on the pretext of getting married on October 6, Dixit allegedly poured kerosene on her and her mother and set her on fire.
The motive for the alleged attack is unclear. He said the police are investigating.
The victim’s home is located in a low-income neighborhood in the city of Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Tea, fruit and snack stalls line the muddy pavement, and rickshaws and motorbikes rumble along the bumpy roads. Goats and cows graze on scraps of food in the distance.
If Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the fifth largest in the world with a population of over 200 million.
The state is a key target for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” (Save the Girl, Educate the Girl) campaign, which aims to improve gender equality in the country. But the campaign seems to have had little impact and acts of horrific violence have often made headlines.
Activist Yogita Bhayana said many men still see rape as an “act of power” against women, and the violence often goes unreported out of fear.
In December 2019, a woman died when she was set on fire in the state while traveling to testify at the trial of two men accused of rape, speaking out to highlight the dangers faced by sexual assault survivors.
“When women go to the authorities, they can suffer even more harm,” Kothari said. “Instead of justice taking its course, they are facing more violence.”
The alleged involvement of a woman in this case shows the extent of misogyny embedded in society, campaigners say, and it is not the first time something like this has happened.
In January this year, a woman had her hair cut and her face painted black before being paraded through a street in the Indian capital, Delhi, where she demanded to be raped in a crowd. Most of the shouting mobs were women.
Women are taught to uphold patriarchal values from childhood, activists say. And despite several attempts by the government to strengthen India’s rape laws, it has done little to reduce the level of sexual violence in the country, which was ranked the world’s most dangerous place to be a woman in a 2018 Thompson Reuters Foundation expert poll. in women’s issues.
The problem persists because of societal problems that remain harder to change, activists say, because victims are often taught that they are ultimately to blame for any wrongdoing.
Also, India’s justice system is “remarkably slow” and can be “traumatic” for the victim of the attack, according to lawyer Kothari.
In 2019, the central government approved a plan to open more than 1,000 fast-track courts across India to deal with cases of rape and sex crimes against minors.
However, according to the data presented by the Minister of Law and Justice to the Upper House of Parliament in December 2021, less than 700 courts were established.
“The process is very punitive for women,” Kothari said. “Despite being a victim, they can end up being the bad guys in police stations and courts.”