Kumari is also damning in her assessment of the security services: "One police officer described rape as part of society. As something that has always existed. When police and politicians talk like this, it shows that they don't take the whole thing seriously." Kumari has demanded that the officer in question be relieved of his post – a wish, she knows, that has no chance of being granted.

Outcry for Zainab

In neighbouring Pakistan another harrowing case made headlines at the beginning of January. The body of a little girl, who had been abducted on her way to Koran school, was found two days later on a rubbish tip. The child had been repeatedly raped before being strangled. The parents criticised the police for their lack of activity following their daughter's disappearance.

The brutal murder of Zainab unleashed a wave of outrage and horror across the country and dominated social media for days afterwards. Violent protests against the Pakistan government erupted in the city of Kasur, close to the Indian border and resulted in the deaths of two of the protesters.

Protest in Karachi following the murder of seven year-old Zainab (photo: Faria Sahar)
Grief and anger following the murder of Zainab: on 4 January 2018, the seven-year-old was abducted on her way to Koran school. Zainab's parents criticised the police for their lack of activity following her disappearance. Her father, Amin Ansari, said that he expected the authorities to catch and punish the perpetrator(s), hoping that other girls would be spared his daughter′s fate

Deeply rooted problem

The sense of outrage has been overwhelming – the demands for change loud. But just as in India, the causes of the problem are deeply rooted in the society, says Beena Sarwar. In her work, the journalist and filmmaker focuses primarily on gender and human rights issues. She is also the founder of "Aman ki Asha" ("Hope for Peace"), an initiative which is working to improve relations between India and Pakistan.

"There is too much shame in our society. Children are often not believed when they try to tell someone what an adult has done to them. Or they may even be made to feel that they themselves are guilty of wrongdoing."

What makes things even worse, she says, is that most of the offenders actually come from within the family itself, or from the child's immediate environment. Sarwar is well aware that Pakistani society cannot eliminate the problem completely, no society can. "But we have to have more effective preventative measures to reduce the number of such offences."

She sees no direct link between sexual violence against women and Islam. "It has nothing to do with that. There is abuse of children in all societies."

Government responsibility

Saman Jaffery has a very similar view. She is a member of parliament and committed to securing more rights for women and minorities in Pakistan. She finds the lack of debate on rape in Pakistani society regrettable. "The tendency to deliberately look the other way is particularly common when it comes to sexual offences – even more so in cases where the offender is either a relative or a friend of the family."

Demonstrating in Allahabad against male violence and sexism (photo: picture-alliance)
Public outcry: violence against women is widespread in India. In 2012 the world reacted with horror and disgust to the murder of student Jyoti Singh Pandey in New Delhi. Her death triggered week-long protests in India. The government reacted to the case by tightening the rape laws. Nevertheless in 2014 alone 36,735 cases of rape were reported to the police. The real figure is likely to be much higher

Another important factor in her opinion is that the subject is simply treated as taboo. "Certain things are just not talked about." Addressing the issue is for her the responsibility of both the Pakistan government and the people. "It is the government first and foremost that needs to be held accountable. But society as a whole is failing the victims by not giving them the support they need and not encouraging them to go public and talk about what has happened to them."

No one in Pakistan feels responsible for this situation, she says. "Added to this you have the poor standard of education and the fact that victims often feel ashamed or adhere to a false sense of honour."

Fundamental change needed

Ranjana Kumari strongly believes that in India too, fundamental change is badly needed. "A widespread recognition of the equality of men and women – that they each have the same rights as citizens, is crucial." This is the message that has to be got across, both within families and in schools. Only then will a gradual change in society begin. "Until that happens, men will go on trying to exert power over women."

At least pressure is now growing on the police and some changes are happening. There are plans for the construction of dozens of help centres for the victims. The initiative "Justice for her" has come about through collaboration with a British university.

The authorities in Madhya Pradesh, the state where most of the rape cases have occurred, are planning to open more than 50 such centres for women. The capital New Delhi and the state of Punjab are also involved in the project, as is Haryana. For those women raped and murdered in recent days, however, it has all come too late.

Esther Felden

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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