17-Year-Old Indian Girl's Suicide Is Closer to Home Than We Might Think

Headlines have been glaring at me for the last couple of days, telling me that a 17-year-old girl in India killed herself after being gang-raped. Inevitably, a line follows about the 23-year-old Indian medical student who was violently sexually assaulted on a bus in front of her boyfriend, then robbed and left in critical condition (she is currently in a Singapore hospital with severe physical damage, including head trauma). Only in the details does it start becoming apparent that the 17-year-old who poisoned herself did so after the police continuously failed her.

89% of reported* violent crimes in India last year were against women. That’s not even a statistic, that’s an outrage. The 17-year-old girl who was assaulted by several men was forced to go from “pillar to post” just to get her case registered. Once she had, one police officer tried to convince her to withdraw her case. According to her sister, the police also pressured her to accept a cash settlement or marry one of her attackers. There are reports in India of police officers refusing to register rape complaints, which explains why this girl had to go to several stations before getting far enough with her case to at least be patronized while getting no help whatsoever.

Her attackers were detained (not yet arrested) only after they were named in her suicide note, and I can’t help but think that the headlines have been misrepresenting what really happened. It seems that this girl committed suicide not after being gang-raped, but after being treated like a pariah by her judicial system. I can’t begin to fathom the hopelessness of not being able to feel safe in a place as public as a bus, let alone in a police station where help and justice are to be expected. Women and men alike have been protesting vehemently in India, as this is the second jarring case of sexual assault within a month.

I’m not overly familiar with India’s culture and politics, and I’m definitely not going to go into heavy commentary about pretending to, especially as a white girl in America. What I can’t help thinking is that while all these headlines have been filled with stories of what happened halfway across the world, they aren’t foreign. My first thought was of Savannah Dietrich, who risked legal action this summer to expose her attackers after they posted videos of her sexual assault online, because the court was going to give them a slap on the wrist. What it comes down to is a lax system of punishment for rape – not just when it comes to actual legal consequences, but social repercussions as well.

We’re still focusing rape prevention on women. Rape in the military is at over 20% for female veterans (males are at 1%, far more than women in terms of the number of people), so instead of prosecuting anyone, let’s just teach women how to use pepper spray, right? Just use the buddy system! One in four women in the USA are raped at some point in their lifetime (fun fact – the last time I posted that statistic, a commenter, male, tried to argue that this stat was lower and therefore it wasn’t even such a big deal). 44% of them are under the age of 18, and 80% are under the age of 30. 54% of rape cases go unreported, because our culture allows the victim to feel shame, instead of putting the blame on the attacker. These aren’t statistics. These are people. These are lives that are interrupted, changed, sometimes broken for the rest of their duration. Because “her skirt was short” is still an acceptable line to utter, and we’ve come up with the term “date rape” since it occurs to frequently that it needed a name.

97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. I don’t understand how that is even possible, how there can be such a painfully massive failure in our judicial system. This is what we do: we blame women for feeling free to dress as they please, and let rapists off the hook when they use flimsy excuses (if any) to violate another person. If our judicial system is any ethical indicator, marijuana possession is worse than rape. Absurd doesn’t even begin to cover it. To add insult to injury, we’ve all just spent an election year listening to countless old white men using near-psychotically incorrect notions of rape to support their stance on abortion, turning sexual assault into a sidebar that serves to open up conversation to what they think are bigger, more important issues, like mandating control over women’s bodies.

F******************ck all of this. We have derogatory words specifically for women who choose to be promiscuous, and yet none for men who sexually assault others. We don’t even have a word for men who are promiscuous; we’ve just re-appropriated terms applied to women. We have events like Slutwalk protests and organizations like RAINN and Hollaback, creating social change and offering support, and it’s fantastic. Throngs of people in India are protesting on behalf of their own safety, and that of their mothers, sisters, daughters and wives. It’s incredible to see the outpouring of resistance to violence against women.

The common factor that is missing is government action – it seems to me, reading between the lines, that most of India’s police action regarding the high profile rape cases recently has been more of an act of PR cleanup than standard procedure. The intensity of social action taken in the US against the culture of rape has been clearly unmatched by government action, because 97% of rapists is pretty much all the rapists, and they not only walk right out the courthouse door, but do so back into society where they can feel even more empowered to become repeat offenders.

It is stunning that we pay attention to issues like rape, bullying, and homophobia now only because a victim committed suicide to end the agony caused by it. It is also stunning to me how many news outlets picked up the story in India, as if sexual assault halfway around the world somehow made it distant and foreign. This is the point where I conclude this post with some kind of finalizing statement and deep insight, but I can’t. This issue continues, is a serious one, and affects the lives of millions of women globally. We have to keep these conversations going, and we have to hold our governments accountable, whichever side of the planet we happen to live on.


*Needless to say, many cases (in the US, about 54%) go unreported.

US statistics taken from RAINN

Photo via the Associated Press

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