Two sisters from rural India claim to have been threatened with sexual violence as punishment for their brother's crime - but their village deny it. Does that even matter?
Meenakshi Kumari is 23 years old. Raised in Uttar Pradesh, India, with two older brothers, Sumit and Ravi, and a 15-year-old sister, until two months ago her life was a happy one. Ravi worked nearby, teaching computer classes to local children, and Meenakshi grew up close to her parents. She dreamed of falling in love, and starting a family of her own.
But on the 30th July, everything changed. Ravi was found guilty of eloping with a woman from a higher ‘Jat’ caste. And this caste’s unelected, all-male council (known as a ‘Khap Panchayat’) who have subsequently decided that Meenakshi and her sister must be raped, painted black and paraded naked around their village, as punishment for their brother’s crime.
It’s heartbreaking and unjustifiable news, which has seen both sisters flee their village in favour of a secret location in Delhi. They’ve remained hidden there for over a month now – too scared to go outside in case they’re found and dragged home.
‘I can’t sleep, I’m very scared,’ Meenakshi said in a recent interview with Cover Asia Press. ‘If we ever return they will harm us or rape us. If not today then in the future. Jats never forget, and they will not forget this humiliation. They want their revenge.’
Horrifyingly, while using sexual assault as a form of punishment is uncommon, it’s not unheard of in India. In January 2014, a 20-year-old woman was gang-raped by up to 12 men from her local village in Birbhum (approx 180km from Calcutta) after falling in love with a man from outside her community, and then failing to pay the imposed fine. ‘According to the woman, the [council] summoned her and her beloved on Monday and detained them through the day and night. After her family said they could not pay the fine, [they] allegedly ordered the mass rape on Tuesday,’ said the local police officer following the incident – adding that it was supposed to ‘humiliate’ the woman in question.
Now, while men from the village have reportedly already ransacked Meenakshi’s home, locals are feeling the pressure of the international spotlight, and are doing everything they can to repair their reputation. ‘We’ve read in the newspapers that a British MP has expressed concern over the so-called shameful treatment of women in our village,’ one man told BBC reporter, Sanjoy Majumder. ‘The reports are completely false.’
‘We are so ashamed that our village is in the news for something that did not even happen,’ added another man. ‘We feel dishonoured.’
But while the rape might never go ahead, threatening a woman with sexual assault is unforgivable under any circumstances, and this incident just highlights the extent of the misogyny that continues to destroy lives across rural India. But it’s important to acknowledge that the general response across the rest of the country is one of outrage too – for the majority of India’s population, rape is an unacceptable crime, and Khap Panchayats have been illegal for years. And while there’s no news on which men would be called upon to carry out the assault, in previous cases like this, it’s been members of the inherently misogynistic councils (often made up of middle-aged men) who have volunteered for the task, while younger generations appear increasingly outraged by the news.
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Now, as international charities call upon the Indian government to step in and provide security for Meenakshi and her family, and over 100,000 people from around the world have sign this petition to protect the siblings, it looks likes she and her sister might have drawn enough attention to their circumstances to escape the fate. But until then, they’ll remain in hiding. And there’s little else that they can do.