Nicholas Kristof (New York Times)
LUCKNOW, India — FOR as long as anyone can remember, upper-caste men in a village here in northern India preyed on young girls. The rapes continued because there was no risk: The girls were destroyed, but the men faced no repercussions.
Now that may be changing in the area, partly because of the courage of one teenage girl who is fighting back. Indian law doesn’t permit naming rape victims, so she said to call her Bitiya — and she is a rapist’s nightmare. This isn’t one more tragedy of sexual victimization but rather a portrait of an indomitable teenager whose willingness to take on the system inspires us and helps protect other local girls.
I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student along on a reporting trip to the developing world. The winner, Austin Meyer of Stanford University, and I see in Bitiya a lesson for the world about the importance of ending the impunity that so often surrounds sexual violence, including in the United States.
Bitiya, who is from the bottom of the caste system, is fuzzy about her age but thinks she was 13 in 2012 when four upper-caste village men grabbed her as she worked in a field, stripped her and raped her. They filmed the assault and warned her that if she told anyone they would release the video and also kill her brother.
Six weeks later Bitiya’s father saw a 15-year-old boy watching a pornographic video — and was aghast to see his daughter in it. The men were selling the video in a local store for a dollar a copy.
Bitiya is crying in the video and is held down by the men, so her family accepted that she was blameless. Her father went to the police to file a report.
The police weren’t interested in following up, but the village elders were. They decided that Bitiya, an excellent student, should be barred from the local public school.
“They said I was the wrong kind of girl, and it would affect other girls,” Bitiya said. “I felt very bad about that.”
Eventually, public pressure forced the school to take her back, but the village elders continue to block the family from receiving government food rations, apparently as punishment for speaking out.
In the background hovers caste. Bitiya is a Dalit, once considered untouchable, at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Civil society scrutiny belatedly led to the arrest of four men, who were then released on bail. The case has been dragging on since, and Bitiya’s father died of a heart attack after one particularly brutal court hearing. The family also fears that members of upper castes will kill Bitiya’s 16-year-old brother, so he mostly stays home — which means he can’t take jobs, leaving the family struggling to afford food.
The rape suspects offered a $15,000 settlement if Bitiya’s family would drop the case, bringing the money in cash to her home with its dirt floor. Bitiya had never seen so much cash — but scoffs that she wouldn’t accept twice as much.
“I want them in jail,” Bitiya says. “Then everyone watching will know that people can get punished for this.”
“I never felt tempted,” adds her grandfather.
Bitiya says she does not feel disgraced, because the dishonor lies in raping rather than in being raped. And the resolve that she and her family display is having an impact. The rape suspects had to sell land to pay bail, and everybody in the area now understands that raping girls may actually carry consequences. So while there were many rapes in the village before Bitiya’s, none are believed to have occurred since.
Madhavi Kuckreja, a longtime women’s activist who is helping Bitiya, says the case reflects a measure of progress against sexual violence.
“There has been a breaking of the silence,” Kuckreja said. “People are speaking up and filing cases.”
Kuckreja notes that the cost of sexual violence is a paralyzing fear that affects all women and girls. Fearful parents “protect” daughters from sexual violence and boys in ways that impede the girls’ ability to get an education, use the Internet or cellphones, or get a good job. For every girl who is raped, Kuckreja says, many thousands lose opportunities and mobility because of fear of such violence.
That holds back women, but also all of India. The International Monetary Fund says that India’s economy is stunted by the lack of women in the formal economy.
In one village, I asked a large group of men about rape. They insisted that they honor women and deplore rape — and then added that the best solution after a rape is for the girl to be married to the rapist, to smooth over upset feelings.
“If he raped her, he probably likes her,” explained Shiv Govind, an 18-year-old.
I’m rooting for Bitiya and strong girls like her to change those attitudes and end the impunity that oppresses women and impoverishes nations.