She may have a mobile phone and satellite television, but if the impoverished low-caste woman seeks justice, she will draw a blank.

There is an epidemic of rape in the state of Haryana. Literally. Twelve instances of rape in the last month, 367 in the first six months of this year, 733 last year. And these are only the reported ones.

The shocking news of a 16-year-old Dalit girl in the state immolating herself after she was gang-raped is not just another statistic. (She was from Jind district, where the majority of these rapes have occurred in recent weeks.) It speaks to at least two depressing realities in this sordid tale. One, that if you are a poor woman who is raped, you cannot even imagine a life where there will be justice. Second, if you are a poor woman and a Dalit, then the chances of justice are even slimmer.

The list of the recent rape cases in Haryana makes depressing reading:

Nineteen-year-old newly-married girl abducted by four men in Gohana town near Sonipat and gang raped.

Thirteen-year-old girl raped by her neighbour in Rohtak.

Fifteen-year-old mentally challenged Dalit girl raped in Rohtak.

Thirty-year-old married backward caste woman gang raped inside her house by three men with guns.

Class XI teenage girl gang raped by four men in Gohana town.

Sixteen-year-old Dalit girl gang raped in Jind district

And so on.

Marriage at 16?

In some ways Haryana is a case apart. It has one of the lowest sex ratios in India – 833 women to every 1000 men. A decade back, when data about the extent of the declining sex ratio became known, an increase in sexual assault and violence on women was predicted. But for Haryanvi women, an additional factor is the continued dominance of caste-based khap panchayats, consisting exclusively of men, who lay down the law for everyone regardless of the laws of the land. These rules include special rules for women, how they should dress, behave and exercise their rights. Only the brave or foolhardy dare to question or defy the diktat of the khaps. Even if women obey khap laws, their lives are not free of violence as is evident from the increasing incidence of rape. Incidentally, the khap suggest that rapes will decrease if girls are married off at 16, even if the law of the land makes 18 the minimum age, because then they will not ‘stray’.

Against these realities, we have to worry about all women in Haryana. But Dalit women face a dual burden, that of caste and gender. According to a report in this paper (The Hindu, September 26, 2012), a study by the organisation Navsarjan of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, revealed that there were 379 cases of atrocities against Dalit women between 2004 and 2009. Of these, 76 were cases of rape or gang rape. By early 2011, only 101 cases (26.6 per cent) or under one third, had been decided.

Clearly, Haryana is not alone when it comes to atrocities against Dalits, including Dalit women. But what has to be addressed urgently is the complete lack of any belief that the criminal justice system can work for the poor and the lower castes. It is only this type of frustration, combined with the shame that society heaps on the victims of rape instead of turning its wrath on the perpetrators, that can force a 16-year-old to end her life in one instance, and the father of another teenager who was raped to end his.

Not friendly places

There is no point in speaking in statistics. Go to any rural area practically anywhere in India and ask women whether they have the courage to go on their own to a police station to report a rape or any other crime. Nine times out of ten they will tell you that they don’t consider police stations friendly places. And this is three decades after campaigns by women’s groups led to important changes in the rape law and in the rules governing the police in their dealings with women. The only women who have been able to put these changes to effective use are those who are organised, have the backing of a collective and know what it is to fight the system instead of just despairing of it.

These recent reports of crimes against women in Haryana are just one more reminder of the contradictory trends in a so-called modernising India. On the one hand, you have technology – like mobile phones or satellite television – that is giving people, including women, the freedom to communicate and to access information even if they are unlettered. On the other hand, there is little that has changed for millions of women in rural India who continue to be burdened by the realities of daily existence without adequate water, sanitation, power, access to health or education. In addition, they have to face the growing conservatism of entrenched anti-women beliefs. And the knowledge that when they are attacked, raped or even killed, they will end up as a crime statistic with no one really caring whether there is any justice.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com