Rape of 5-Year-Old Indian Girl Sparks New Outrage, Old Questions

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Saurabh Das / AP

An Indian woman holds a poster as she protests with others against how Indian authorities handle sex crimes, near the Parliament in New Delhi, April 22, 2013.

Dozens of news vans are again camped in front of a major hospital in New Delhi, jockeying for space behind the yellow police barricades so ubiquitous in the Indian capital in recent months. Inside, the 5-year-old victim of another grotesque rape has been making the first steps in what is sure to be a long recovery after being kidnapped, sexually assaulted and left for dead last week in an apartment one floor beneath her family home. On Monday, doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) hospital told reporters that the girl was showing steady signs of recovery after undergoing several procedures. Two men have been arrested in connection with the attack.

For days, scenes across the capital have recalled the weeks following the Dec. 16 gang rape of a 23-year-old student, who later died of her wounds. Demonstrators have again been gathering by the hundreds, clashing with authorities in their outrage at the failure of the police and the government to better protect India’s citizens and, in particular, its women. On Monday, several streets near the government in central New Delhi were barricaded as protesters from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, among others, marched toward Parliament.

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Before last week, the initial outrage over the brutality of the Dec. 16 crime had been slowly fading in New Delhi, in spite of the unnervingly steady stream of violent rapes that have continued to be reported by Indian media across the country. In March, the government passed a new, tougher rape law that, among other things, allows for rapes resulting in fatalities to be punishable by death. But many say that the more systemic problems at the root of India’s rising violent crime — such as chronic police understaffing, poor training and a lack of political will to change either — have not been addressed. Sexual assaults are considered to be vastly underreported, and the ones that are reported often go nowhere. In New Delhi alone, of more than 600 rape cases filed last year, just one resulted in a conviction.

The police handling of both sexual assault and crime against children came under fresh attack as the circumstances of the 5-year-old’s ordeal emerged. After their daughter had gone missing two days before, the family of the victim heard her crying in a locked ground-floor room in the building they live in. After breaking into the room and rushing the girl to local police, the family told reporters that the officers on duty offered them 2000 rupees — a little less than $40 — to quietly disappear and not register a report, a practice observers say is common in a system ill-equipped to handle its caseload. Over the weekend, protesters stormed police headquarters, calling for the resignation of the police commissioner. In response, police handed out pamphlets promising that both the rape case and the offending authorities would be dealt with swiftly, and on Monday, Indian Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told Parliament that the government had taken action against the officers on duty.

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Will this latest round of quick corrective action make any lasting difference? The track record of bringing justice to the victims of sexual abuse in India does not bode well. In a Human Rights Watch report released in February, researchers found that the underreporting of child sexual abuse and rape was rampant, owing to no small part to scenarios precisely like the 5-year-old’s family has described. In one bleak example, the report cites a 2007 government-sponsored survey of 12,500 children in 13 states. The report found “serious and widespread sexual abuse” among those that it surveyed, but only 3% of the cases in which children said they had been abused had been reported to the police.