Teenage Sisters Gang-Raped and Hanged in India, and We're Discussing Toilets?

Punched in the stomach. That’s exactly how I felt this week when I saw a horrific image of two girls hanging by their necks from the branch of a mango tree. The picture was taken in a village called Katra, located in rural Uttar Pradesh, India, where the bodies of two teen girls were discovered early Wednesday morning, hanging from a tree after being gang-raped. The girls, who were cousins, were 14 and 15 years old.

As I read about this horrific and heinous crime, I felt like I was watching my own attack unfold all over again. While so many media outlets are focusing on why these girls left their home in the middle of their night, very few seem to be questioning the apathy on the part of the police.

As early reports trickled in, we learned that the two girls were members of the low-caste Dalit community, previously referred to as "untouchables." Both girls had been missing since Tuesday night. When the father of one of the girls went to the local police station to file a First Information Report (FIR), the police — who reportedly refused to investigate the case — turned him away. Even worse, it became clear that the police had not only ignored the case, but had also possibly played a part in it.

As The Times of India reports,

a constable of the local police outpost allegedly assisted the accused in the crime while his fellow constable stationed at the outpost on Tuesday night, shooed the victims' family away when they went to lodge an FIR about the missing girls. On Wednesday morning, the very same constables went to the victim's house and informed them that bodies of the missing girls had been found hanging from a tree.

Yet much of the media coverage of this horrific rape and murder conveniently ignores the police's apparent apathy and possible involvement. What does it focus on instead? Toilets. Namely, India’s lack of toilets, and the fact that the girls had been forced to leave their home in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.

One report at the UK’s Independent implies that the girls had taken a “risk” by going outdoors to relieve themselves:

The international charity Water Aid said around 300 million women and girls in India were still obliged to practise open defecation, exposing them to risk of harassment and assault. Lower caste women were especially at risk, it said.
“This vicious, horrifying attack illustrates too vividly the risks that girls and women take when they don’t have a safe, private place to relieve themselves,” said the charity’s Barbara Frost. “Ending open defecation is an urgent priority that needs to be addressed, for the benefit of women and girls who live in poverty and without access to privacy and a decent toilet.”

Although this report may believe it is shedding light on an important issue, the logic behind it is not a far cry from victim blaming.

Why is it the woman who is taking the risk when she goes outside? Yes, women need access to clean, private toilets, but the reason for that should not be because the alternative poses the danger of being gang-raped.

One of the first outlets to report on this story, The Associated Press, also attempted to explain the incident by highlighting India’s lack of “safe toilets”:

Health workers, police and women’s rights activists say women and girls face the risk of rape and harassment when they go out into fields or bushes due to the lack of toilets in their homes.
More than a half billion Indians lack access to toilets. A recent study said around 30 percent of women from poor families faced violent sexual assaults every year because they did not have access to a safe toilet.

What exactly is a “safe toilet”? Even if these two girls had used a “safe toilet” (presumably meaning a toilet inside their home) does that mean they would be safe from sexual assault?

The answer is no. Because sexual and physical assault can happen anywhere, at anytime. It can happen to a journalist on the job. It can happen to a college student coming home from seeing a film. It can happen to a four-year-old girl in her own home. And it can happen on a busy street, in broad daylight, with people watching as it takes place. I know, because it happened to me.

After I was physically assaulted in India, the police in particular were quick to question my role in the attack. Why was I alone? What was I doing? Why did I take the risk of working in a low-income community? Did I know my attacker? Was I involved with him? Did I reject him? Did I invite the attack upon myself? I heard these questions again and again as I went through the painful process of submitting my police report. It was a narrative laced with victim blaming, in some form or another. And yet, no one bothered to ask what made my attacker want to stab me, much less how it could have been prevented.

As I read about this horrific and heinous crime, I felt like I was watching my own attack unfold all over again. While so many media outlets are focusing on why these girls left their home in the middle of the night, very few seem to be questioning the apathy on the part of the police.

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We’re asking the wrong questions about this tragedy. We’re not looking at what could have prevented this incident — stricter law enforcement that would hold the police accountable for investigating reported crimes, for example — but instead are focusing on how we can further 'protect' women by sequestering them in their homes, with 'safer' toilets. We aren’t pushing the police to explain why two of their own officers have been arrested in the crime, but are instead using statistics to make a point about a still-developing nation. We’re talking about the problem here, but we aren’t really doing anything to solve it.

An exception to this, however, are the villagers of Katra. Early Wednesday morning, the villagers surrounded the tree where the bodies of the two girls were found hanging and blocked the roads in protest of police apathy.

According to The New York Times,

The next morning, when the two girls were found dead, a crowd of angry villagers gathered at the scene, accusing the police of complicity in the crime and blocking them from taking away the bodies.

In silent protest, the villagers of Katra demanded that the police take action against the perpetrators of the crime, and refused to allow them to remove the bodies of the girls until a police report had been logged, and arrests had been made. The villagers allowed the bodies to be taken for an autopsy only after the two police officers accused of assisting the perpetrators had been suspended and two additional arrests were made. The autopsy later confirmed rape, as well as hanging as the cause of death.

These two girls were brutally gang-raped and murdered when they went out one night to use the toilet. But they could have just as easily been assaulted on the way to school, in the market, or on a moving bus. The problem here is not the toilet. The problem is the attitude toward gender violence in a country where activists estimate that only one in 10 rapes (some estimate as few as one in 100 rapes) are reported.

If we want make India a safer place for women, we have to work towards transforming this blasé attitude that accepts that “boys will be boys” and asserts that women cause rape by placing themselves in their path. We need to change the dialogue from roundabout blaming of the survivors to questioning those who perpetrate (or in this case, refuse to intervene in) the violence. And it's time for us to take a good look at how at how we talk about sexual violence and assault in the media.

While public sanitation is a major issue in India — a defining issue in the recent election, even — it’s hardly the point of this story. In the wake of this tragedy, we can build all the “safe toilets” we want. But let’s not live under the illusion that sexual violence will end because of it.