Protests over sexual assault have renewed in India’s capital, Delhi, after a 9-year-old Dalit girl was killed on Sunday. Her family alleges that she was raped and murdered while fetching water from a crematorium in southwest Delhi. The crematorium’s priest and three other employees told the girl’s parents she was electrocuted while drinking from a water cooler and convinced them to cremate the body without involving the police. Police have arrested the priest and the three employees and are investigating the rape allegations as well as possible caste violence.
Because of the hasty cremation, the medical board looking into the cause of death has reportedly told police they are unable to proceed because only charred remains of the body could be recovered.
Protests across the country over incidents of gender-based violence have taken place regularly since 2012, when a female student was gang raped and murdered on a Delhi bus, leading to stricter laws and policy reforms. However, the government has failed to implement rape laws effectively. According to the latest available crime data, over 32,000 cases of rape were reported in India in 2019, one rape roughly every 17 minutes. Stigma and continued barriers to reporting rape, including lack of meaningful protection from retaliation, mean the numbers are likely far higher.
Girls and women from marginalized communities, such as Dalits, are less likely to obtain justice from a system that favors those on the basis of caste, money, and influence. In such cases, especially when the suspects are from a dominant caste, police and politicians often attempt to scuttle the investigation by threatening the victim and her family or tampering with evidence. Crimes against Dalits increased by over 7 percent in 2019, of which 3,486 cases were registered as rape.
Continued impunity for such crimes and victim-blaming has normalized violence against women and girls in India. Last month, after two girls were reportedly raped on a Goa beach, the state chief minister’s response was to ask their parents why their daughters were out late at night.
The government should ensure that police, medical professionals, and the courts are properly sensitized and trained to handle sexual violence cases and treat survivors with dignity, providing legally mandated support including free and competent legal aid and compensation.