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Why Was a 10-Year-old Indian Rape Victim Put Behind Bars?

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A 10-year-old rape victim who was detained by two policewomen after attempting to report her case in the Meerpur village of India is causing outrage across the web this morning as people worldwide protest the continuously deplorable treatment of sexual harassment victims in the South Asian state.

According to The Indian Express, the young girl spent several hours behind bars after her mother brought her to a women's police station to file a complaint, and was rescued only after locals protested her arrest. Senior police officer Gulab Singh said the child was found unconscious in a field by her parents after allegedly being raped, and the man accused of raping the minor is absconding. 

This case comes only five months after the infamous gang rape of a Delhi student, and just days after Indian president Pranab Mukherjee gave his assent to an anti-rape law that would establish harsher sentences for rape and criminalize sexual harassment. 

The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay responded to the Delhi tragedy this December by calling for a profound change in India, particularly in laws protecting women. "Now is the time to strengthen India’s legal regime against rape," Pillay said. "I encourage the Indian government to consult widely with civil society and to invite the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women to visit the country to assist in this process."

Independent UN experts serving as appointees of the 47-nation Human Rights Council were tasked to investigate and report back on issues related to their particular mandate. 

According to India's National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 228,650 incidences of crime against women, and 15,423 rape cases, were reported in 2011. In Delhi, the conviction rate of 41.5% in rape cases may be reprehensibly low. New Delhi has one of the highest reported rates of crime against women in India, although according to the New York Times, most experts believe that the official numbers barely hint at the real scale of the problem.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, which was introduced after the fatal Delhi gang rape in December, amends various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the code of criminal procedure, the Indian Evidence Act, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act. In addition to broadening the definition of rape, the bill provides for life term and death sentences for offenders.

However, some worry that strengthening laws to increase the protection of women may be insufficient. Indian author and journalist Lavanya Sankaran reports that in northern India, rape accusations are often followed by questions about the victim's behavior, and even charges that she provoked the assault.

"In India, we have a regrettable tendency to treat laws as mere suggestions, like worthy advice from a grandmother to be followed in theory and ignored in practice," wrote Sankaran in The Guardian last Wednesday. "If the law suits our interests, we follow it. If not, there are many ways of working our way around it."

Women across the country are taking matters into their own hands by protesting the harassment, enrolling in self-defense classes, and uniting against aggressors.

The Red Brigade, a self-defense group for young women suffering sexual abuse in Lucknow, a city in northern India, was formed in November 2011 by 25-year-old teacher Usha Vishwakarma. The group is named for the bright red outfits worn by the women, now over 100 in total, who are aged 11 to 25. They travel the streets in a pack, determined to teach their tormentors a lesson, whether it be alerting the police, or taking matters into their own hands, encircling and beating the men with their fists and shoes.

"This is what happens in India," 16-year-old Laxmi, a member of the Brigade, told the Observer. "These things happen all the time. All of us know this, so don't let anyone say otherwise. This is why we have formed the Red Brigade.”

Sankaran, who was born and raised in Bangalore, argues that what needs to change now is Indian society's attitude towards women. The case of the Meerpur village victim and the behavior of the policewomen are indications that India's new anti-rape laws have yet to fully take effect. Although the public outcry surrounding the instance confirms that legal reinforcement is certainly an important first step, one cannot help but wonder how many more cases like this will it take to fundamentally change a culture.

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