LUCKNOW, India (WashPost) — One of the girls wore crimson, the other emerald. They had long black hair. They were barefoot. They were cousins and of a low caste. As shown in gruesome photographs, they were barely more than children. Pushpa was 14 and her cousin Murti was 15, said Police Superintendent Atul Saxena. Without a toilet in their home, they had gone outside to relieve themselves the night before and had now been found dead, hanging from a mango tree framed by a rising sun.
A crowd of villagers swelled underneath the bodies. Reports said they wouldn’t allow anyone to cut down the girls until arrests were made, so for hours, they waited in near silence. Then came news that four men had been arrested for the crime. Two of the accused were villagers who lived in Katra in Uttar Pradesh state. The other two, the Associated Press reported, were police officers.
Autopsy reports confirmed the children had been raped and strangled. News of the attack splashed across nearly every major publication in India. Even in a country where a rape occurs every 22 minutes, according to Indian government statistics reported by the AP, the gang-rape and killing was shocking.
Shocking because of its sheer brutality. Shocking because two suspects are police officers. And shocking because even after 2012′s fatal gang-rape — in which a woman’s insides were mangled with a metal rod — and tightening of national anti-rape laws, men in India have committed the crime again.
Gang-rapes are evidence of entrenched social problems, analysts said: the resiliency of caste-based sexual violence, police indifference and a tolerance of sexual harassment.
“There is no magic formula to deal with the problem of rape,” Indira Jaisingh, national additional solicitor general, told the BBC in 2013. ”There’s a bias that operates in the mind of decision makers — stereotyping women, blaming the victim, trying to find out if she invited the rape.”
In the past four decades, the number of reported rape cases in India surged nearly 900 percent to 24,923 in 2012, according to the statistics from National Crime Records Bureau. Since many rapes go unreported, the problem may be worse. There’s familial pressure to keep quiet about the crime, and it’s difficult to know whether the increase means more rapes have occurred or shows a growing willingness among victims to come forward. Some activists estimated only 10 percent of rapes are actually reported — others feared as few as 1 percent are.
Records show a rape is committed every 22 minutes in India, a nation of 1.2 billion people. Activists say that number is low because of an entrenched culture of tolerance for sexual violence, which leads many cases to go unreported. Women are often pressed by family or police to stay quiet about sexual assault, and those who do report it are often subjected to public ridicule or social stigma.
India tightened its anti-rape laws last year, making gang rape punishable by the death penalty, even when the victim survives. The new laws came after the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi that triggered nationwide protests.
But there’s little denying rape’s pervasiveness: According to one 2011 poll cited by the Times of India, nearly 25 percent of Indian men admitted committing an act of sexual violence, and roughly 20 percent of those polled conceded they had forced wives or partners to have sex.
The Indian capital of New Delhi has long been maligned as the rape epicenter of India. It was both the scene of 2012′s widely-publicized rape, but also of this year’s alleged gang rape of a 51-year-old Danish tourist.
But rape is also endemic in Uttar Pradesh, where the two teenage girls were found this week. About five people are raped there per day, according to national crime statistics reported by the BBC. ”At the moment,” state Congress leader Rita Bahuguna Joshi said, “Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst places to be a woman.”
The state is both staggeringly populous — 200 million inhabitants — and staggeringly poor. More than 60 million people there live on less than $1.25 per day, according to state records. Such poverty, experts said, is vital to understanding the frequency of rape in India. Upper-caste men targeting lower-caste women — usually Dalit or “untouchables” — account for a large proportion of rapes.
“I analysed the rape figures for 2007 and I found that 90 percent of victims were Dalits and 85 percent of Dalit rape victims were underage girls,” SR Darapuri, vice-president of the state’s People’s Union for Civil Liberties, told the BBC.
One 15-year-old Dalit in Uttar Pradesh, for example, was gang-raped by three men and held captive for 15 days by men of an upper-caste. “These cases are so brutal that we wouldn’t have believed that they could happen,” one rights activist told the BBC. “We thought such things could happen only in novels and films.”
Meanwhile, police disregard sexual assault. One oft-cited investigation, published in 2012 in the magazine Tehelka, found widespread police indifference, if not outright hostility, toward victims of sexual assault. Some cops blamed rapes on revealing clothing or said alleged victims were prostitutes.
“There are [rape] cases, but 70 percent involve consensual sex,” one officer said. “Only if someone sees, or the money is denied, it gets turned into rape.” Another added: “She is dressed in a manner that people get attracted to her. In fact, she wants them to do something to her.”
Indifference has, in some ways, reached the highest levels of the state’s political apparatus. Last month, the head of the state’s government party told an election rally that he was against a law that calls for the execution of gang-rapists.
“Boys will be boys,” Mulayam Singh Yadav said. “They make mistakes.”