As you read this, a swarm of turbaned men would have gathered in Sonepat, near Delhi, to sagely discuss the need to get girls married at 16. The Sarva Khap Jat Panchayat believes that getting girls married off at a young age would prevent rapes. It is for the girls’ own protection, they said when Haryana hit the headlines last week for its rash of rapes. There were 15 rapes reported in one month in the small state bordering Delhi, and many of these were sensational gangrapes that ended in deaths. So if only the legal age of marriage was lowered to 16, there would be no rapes.
Now there are a number of problems with this logic of course. For one, it curiously believes that rape is caused by women who don’t have an outlet for their sexual needs even at the ripe old age of 16 or 17. Otherwise why would marrying girls off at 16 solve the problem? Clearly men have no role in the rape. Or, is it about a married woman being owned and thus protected by her husband and his family? But the same argument also believes that unmarried women are owned by their fathers, or brothers, and must be protected by these men. So it cannot, logically, be just a matter of the girl’s protection by her master.
Besides, there is the small matter of finding women to marry off. Haryana has one of the country’s worst sex ratios, with 877 females per 1,000 males. If one talks of rape as a matter of repressed sexuality finding an outlet one needs to focus on sexually frustrated men who have failed to find wives. It has nothing to do with lowering the girl’s age of marriage. And the khap leaders seem to forget that married and even pregnant women are raped. Little children are raped. Last year 9,398 children were raped in India. Many of them were killed as well.
Rape is not so much about sex as about power. Surely the khap leaders know that? Especially since they often order the rape of mothers whose sons dare to marry defying caste and gotra laws.
In fact, rape has shot up over the decades. There were 24,206 rapes reported in 2011. Reported rapes have gone up by 873 per cent from the 2043 cases in 1971, when the National Crime Records Bureau first started collecting data for rape. Today, there is a rape every 20 minutes in India. And our conviction rate for rape is just 26 per cent of cases that go to court.
Not surprisingly, former Haryana Chief Minister Chautala quickly voiced his support for the khap leaders. He has always been loyal to their outrageously regressive views. Earlier he had pushed their cause vigorously when the khaps had demanded that same gotra marriage be made illegal.
Such genuflecting is expected. The outrage of civil society, though understandable, is rather naïve. Generations of politicians have used the khaps and other feudal systems to happily harvest votes. Centuries-old violent feudal systems are less risky than democratic choice. So, for decades, we have sacrificed democratic values at the altar of populism.
We humour khaps, even though we know that they go against the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution. So sheer muscle power enforce traditions that have no legal standing. Administrators, politicians, even judges are reluctant to go against popular sentiment. Add to it the slowness of our justice delivery mechanism. With the civil courts out of reach, the disempowered villager falls back on “samaj”. Instead of justice, one settles for social sanction. If we had the guts to be loyal to the Constitution khaps would die.
But instead, on the first International Day of the Girl Child, we had politicians endorsing the demand that marrying off girls while they were still children would solve the problem of rape. It would make Bhanwari Devi laugh. She was gangraped in Rajasthan for trying to prevent a child marriage. And Shakuntala Devi in Madhya Pradesh had her hands chopped off for the same reason.
Changing an ancient tradition like child marriage is not easy. Millions of underage girls are married off in India defying laws. In actual fact the parents are robbing their child of her childhood, exposing her to violence, ill health and possible death at childbirth. Her parents are violating the child’s human rights by depriving her of her right to personal freedom, to personal choice and growth.
In a society that disrespects women, allows honour killings, caste violence, female foeticide, child marriage and violence against women, where justice delivery is slow and often defunct, rape is bound to thrive.
All this happens because no political party is willing to take on the unpleasant task of educating their votebanks. Old customs are humoured, blatant attacks against constitutional guarantees tolerated. Gangrapes in Haryana symptomise a disease that is not treated because the illness yields votes, and the cure may not.
Thankfully, women and their families are fighting back. The law is being changed to make it more victim friendly. And for some time now, we have not heard of the police or lawyers trying to get the girl to marry her rapist. There is a change for the better. And it could give us a foothold to stand up against the bizarre demands of the khaps and their pet politicians.
The writer is editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org