Calling the suggestion by Haryana’s Khap panchayats to lower the marriageable age of girls to 16 years to prevent rapes in the State as “illegal and ridiculous”, Union Minister for Women & Child Development Krishna Tirath on Monday said that education and awareness about the rights of women are the need of the hour.

“We are in touch with the State Government and have asked them to assess the situation and come up with programmes to ensure the safety of women. The violation of the rights of women in the State [rapes that have happened recently] has us concerned. The State Government and the police need to bring in strong measures to assure women in Haryana about their safety,” she added.

Stating that in all the cases of rape that have happened in Haryana recently there was a “disturbing similarity,” Shamina Shafiq, chairperson of the enquiry committee set up by the NCW to look into these cases, said: “All these rapes in Haryana were committed by people the victims already knew. In some cases they were even stalked and sexually harassed for a long period of time. We had gone to Hisar and Jind where the victims told us that they were too afraid even to speak to their parents about the sexual harassment they faced, and that police support they claimed was non-existent in case any harassment complaint was made.”

Reacting to the Khap latest order, she said: “In the Hisar case, four persons who raped the women were married, while in Jind the victim was a married woman, so where is the role of marriage acting as a guard against rapes being committed or a woman being safe if she is married. The suggestion is bizarre and clearly indicates the need for education about women rights. We are in touch with the Haryana administration and besides the legal action we have also asked them to provide psychological support for these women.”

Meanwhile, women activists too have come out strongly against the Khap panchayat leaders order to bring down the marriageable age as a means of curbing the increasing number of rape incidents in the state.

The All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) condemning the statement noted: “Not only do these Khap leaders exhibit a total lack of understanding about rape being used as a tool of violent aggression in a male dominant and caste ridden society, it has also revealed its own regressive stance vis-à-vis the rights of girls not to be forced into early marriages.”

AIDWA general-secretary Sudha Sundaraman said: “Statements like these imply that girls are themselves responsible for the violence perpetrated on them. Instead of sending out a strong message against rapists and those involved in sexual harassment, these self-styled panchayat leaders are justifying sexual violence and extending immunity to the offenders by shifting the blame elsewhere. We strongly assert that the minimum age of marriage for girls should be above 18, as decreed by law.”

The Association has also demanded that the investigations into rape cases be conducted properly and in a time-bound manner and the perpetrators be given stringent punishment.

Haryana Minister for Women and Child Development Geeta Bhukkal said: “The State Government is very concerned about the rise in the number of crimes against women and we are bringing in stringent measures to ensure that we are able to net the rise. The rehabilitation of the victims is being looked into and we are also pushing for fast track courts that will ensure that these women get justice. We also appeal to the general public to be more proactive about the protection of women and create a social movement where there is awareness about the rights of women. The State Government feels that the adverse sex ratio in the State too has contributed to the rise in crimes against women which is another problem that needs to be addressed at the earliest.”

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