Indian police have arrested 13 people for the gang-rape of a 20-year woman — including members of her rural community’s tribal council, who ordered the crime to punish her for having a relationship with a Muslim man from another village.
The West Bengal woman, who was hospitalized in serious condition on Thursday, told law enforcement that she lost track of how many men raped her. According to her family members, the council targeted her for her romantic relationship, which they believe violated the rules of her tribe.
“The girl was gang-raped for having an affair with a youth of another community and failing to pay the fine which was imposed by the village council,” the local police superintendent confirmed to AFP. “All 13 men, including the chief of the village council, who were named in the complaint before the police, were arrested.”
These type of tribal councils are common in northern parts of India, settling matters of dispute in rural communities. But village elders aren’t sanctioned by the Indian government, and human rights organizations have repeatedly called for police reform to crack down on the community leaders who issue barbaric punishments. Human Rights Watch has tracked the “honor killings” ordered by village councils — typically to punish individuals who choose to marry outside of their caste or tribe — and has urged the government to protect people engaging in consensual relationships from this type of violence.
Annie Raja, the general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, told the Associated Press that local councils often use their power to violate women’s rights. “They are dead set against giving basic human rights to women,” Raja said. “These are non-constitutional bodies and the West Bengal government should take stringent action against them.”
Over the past year, India has made international headlines for horrific cases of gang rape that often end in hospitalization or death. Earlier this month, a Danish tourist was robbed and gang raped, and protests erupted after a 16-year-old rape victim was murdered for reporting the crime to the police. There’s been increased pressure to crack down on sexual crimes, and the government recently strengthened the criminal penalty for rape. Still, sexual assault prevention advocates argue that India needs to do more to change its culture of victim-blaming, patriarchy, and violence.
The UN considers violence against women to be “one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world.” And obviously, India is hardly the only country where rape culture is an ongoing problem. The World Health Organization estimates that one in three women around the world is subject to sexual violence at some point in her life.
Here in the United States, rape is a crime that typically goes unpunished, and the victims who come forward to report it are often faced with significant violence and harassment. Just this week, President Obama announced a new White House initiative to combat the ongoing sexual assault crisis on U.S. college campuses, where students are not guaranteed the opportunity to obtain their education free from violence and victimization.