The case of a 15-year-old girl who was sexually abused for months by 33 men has shed light on the scourge of rape in India.
Rampant impunity and disregard of the law has been fuelling a culture of violence against women in the country, rights activists said.
The schoolgirl, who couldn't be identified for legal reasons, from Mumbai in western Maharashtra state, said she had been raped by the men since January after she was lured by a male friend over a social media app.
Her ordeal came to light only last week as she celebrated her birthday. She told her aunt she had been raped repeatedly over a period of nine months.
Police said the girl had known the main accused, 23, since 2014 and had reconnected with him last year over Instagram when the city was reeling under the pandemic.
The two met in January in the neighbouring Thane district, where the man allegedly raped her and filmed the assault. He later used threats of releasing the video to coerce her into meeting more of his friends.
Over months, the accused and his friends sexually abused the girl at various places and each time made videos to force her to maintain silence and comply with their demands, police said.
All 33 accused, including two minors, have been arrested and charged under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences law, which has more severe sentences, authorities said.
"The girl has undergone medical treatment and is back home,” Dinkar Mukne, a police officer, told The National.
Mr Mukne said the accused – among them students and daily wagers – knew each other and regularly shared the assault videos between themselves on messaging apps for months without being detected.
India is the most dangerous place for women due to the high risk of sexual violence, a 2018 report by Thomson Reuters Foundation found.
Every year tens of thousands of women are raped and sexually abused in the country, a figure experts say is just the tip of the iceberg as many victims avoid reporting attacks due to legal wrangling, low conviction rates, and social stigma.
Even when India was under lockdown last year, crimes against women continued unabated, with around 77 rape cases reported every day.
Some 28,046 incidents of rape involving 28,153 victims were reported across the country in 2020, according to the latest government figures. More than 2,650 victims were minors.
India’s sexual violence crisis came under global scrutiny after the gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi in 2012, known as the Nirbhaya case, that sparked weeks-long protests and international condemnation.
It spurred an overhaul of the country’s rape laws, with enhanced jail terms and the death penalty for sexual assault of minors below the age of 12.
But women’s rights activists say the new laws made no difference on the ground, where crimes and brutality against women are growing at an alarming rate, with a low conviction rate of 32 per cent in sexual crime cases.
“I do not think laws and the criminal justice system itself are a deterrent. The problem is a widespread impunity not just when it comes to criminal justice but also in society,” Kavita Krishnan, a women’s rights activist, told The National.
“These men look at precedent and know that punishment is highly rare of any kind, that accountability is rare,” she said.
India has recorded several gang rapes in recent years, including the 2018 sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old Muslim girl at a Hindu temple in Kathua and the fatal sexual assault of a Dalit woman, 19, in Hathras in September last year.
A 12-year-old girl from Kerala was raped by 30 men over two years including her father, it was reported in 2019.
Last week, two teenagers were allegedly held captive and gang-raped by four men at a cyber cafe in Uttar Pradesh state.
The men filmed the acts and extorted money from the girls.
Activists say the pandemic has further aggravated the crisis as support systems vanished during the public health emergency amid mounting economic and psychological stress in the society.
“The cases have increased especially of gang-rape during the period of the pandemic is because women lost access to any kind of help and support services and at the same time people took advantage of lockdowns and isolation,” Ranjana Kumari, chairperson of Women Power Connect, the largest advocacy body for women in India, told The National.
Ms Kumari said that women from poor, marginalised and minority communities have been particularly targeted in the country where gender equality is not taught in most patriarchal families.
“The justice delivery system is failing,” Ms Kumari said.
"The law has become stronger but, when it comes to justice delivery and getting these people punished, the last we heard was of the Nirbhaya rapists who got punished.
"Since then we haven’t had any judgment in which anyone was severely punished."