Struggling to balance the pile of dirty laundry on her head and a wailing nine-month-old baby in her arms, Ranjana Kumari* walks to the washing area of the house she shares with her parents in Katihar, a nondescript village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.
She places the clothes on the floor, followed by her little boy, then begins to work her way through the washing. Within minutes Arvind* starts crying and Ranjana rushes to comfort him.
‘I can’t do any work because he always wants to be carried,’ she says. ‘I’m exhausted. He’s so small and adorable but he has made my life a real struggle.’
At 15, Ranjana is a single mother who is devoted to her baby. She has given up school to look after him full-time, even though she was a bright student.
And what makes her devotion even more extraordinary is that her baby was born after she was allegedly raped by a much older neighbour.
Still reeling from the shock and trauma of the alleged vicious attack, the teenager spends every day caring for her son – and crying when he’s asleep. ‘I was a bright student and very passionate about life, but that brute snatched it away. He destroyed my life. It’s not my baby’s fault. I love him, but I wanted him in 10 years’ time, not now… not like this.’
Although Ranjana and her family reported the alleged rape to police, the neighbour fled the village and is yet to be traced. Meanwhile she decided against having an abortion and is determined to bring up her child ‘so I can someday prove that Arvind is his child and the man who destroyed my life can be punished.’ Sadly she is not alone.
Although a series of rape cases in India – notably the Delhi bus one – sparked national and international outrage leading to tougher punishments for sexual offences and more stringent legislation to prosecute offenders, in rural parts of the country rape is still a constant threat many girls are forced to live with.
Ranjana, the only daughter of a poor carpenter, is just one among a growing number of teenage rape victims who have been left pregnant or holding babies in Bihar, one of the poorer states in India.
More than a dozen teen victims in various rural villages in the state are struggling to raise the children they have had following the attacks. All of them refused abortions because they are determined to fight for justice and ensure the rapists are punished.
The child’s paternity can be proven by a DNA test that could strengthen the victim’s case. But the downside is that the dreams of teenage victims to study and get a job are thwarted because they often have to leave school to take care of the child. They also have to face the stigma of being an unwed mother – something considered shameful in traditional Indian societies.
The men accused of rape are often well connected and escape the law by forcing the victims’ families to accept money in return for dropping the case. In fact, there have been several reports of panchayats – local self-government bodies – forcing victims to accept money and not report the incident to the police. In January this year, a panchayat in Bihar ordered one of its members accused of rape to pay the woman Rs41,000 (Dh2,306). The victim was then told to forget about the incident.
Last year, a panchayat in Kishanganj district ordered a teenage girl who was allegedly raped by four brothers and became pregnant to accept Rs50,000 and undergo an abortion. She refused and lodged a case, following which the accused were arrested and are now facing trial.
Lalita*, from Morsanda village, shrugged aside staunch opposition from her family and neighbours to have a child after she was allegedly raped by a local youth. The accused threatened her, ordering her to keep quiet about the attack, but she reported the alleged attack to the police and her parents. ‘I decided to give birth to my child as a protest. I will fight for justice until the end,’ she told the media last year.
Incidents of rape have skyrocketed in Bihar. According to a recent Gulf News report, more than 1,125 cases of rape were reported in 2013. In 2012 927 incidents of rape were reported. Following the spike in the number of cases, Bihar’s former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi said last year he would set up a fast-track court to hear such cases in Katihar district, although Bihar has the highest number of fast-track courts in India – 179 – and tens of thousands of cases are pending in these courts.
Launched to tackle the spiralling crime wave in the state, these fast-track courts deal with a variety of criminal cases, including crimes against women, and dispense justice far quicker than regular courts.
The enormity of the crime situation can be gauged from the fact that Bihar had the lowest conviction rates – 10 per cent – in India in 2014.
Mohammad Farooque Alam, 41, who works as a social worker with Manav Sansadhan Vikas Mantralaya, says the delay and low conviction rates in many rape cases is because parents hope the rapists will eventually do the ‘right thing’ and marry their daughters.
‘The number of child rapes are unbelievably high, but most of them go unreported because of social pressures,’ he says. Instead of filing a police complaint, many victims’ families prefer a settlement out of court so their honour is not sullied by the media attention such cases might attract. Social activists say that in many cases the victims are too illiterate or afraid to approach the police and file a case. And when they do so, it may be too late to find evidence to convict the culprit.
‘Victims go to the rapist’s families and plead that he marry the victim, or they go to panchayats for justice who in turn either ask the rapist to marry the victim or suggest that he pay a fine to the victim and walk away scot-free,’ says Mohammad.
This was also true in Ranjana’s case. She was a grade nine student when she was raped by a 25-year-old man who lived in the village.
‘The first time I saw him was two years ago when he came to our house and asked for some donations for a local festival. He asked me my name and where I studied,’ she says. ‘He was a tall, huge man and I was a little scared but I answered his questions and he left.’
Five days later Ranjana spotted him following her to school. ‘I thought it was a coincidence but when it happened for several days I realised he was stalking me. He would smile at me from afar, sing lewd songs loudly to get my attention and on several occasions would shout out that he loved me.’
Worried that her parents would stop her from going to school if she told them, she didn’t say anything. ‘I didn’t feel confident enough to tell anyone because of the fear of humiliation. In our village, girls always get blamed for whatever happens, even if it’s wrong and not our fault.’
Then a month later, in November 2013, the entire village was getting ready to celebrate a religious festival. Ranjana finished school at 3pm and was hurrying home alone. ‘My friends had decided to skip school that day so I had to walk the 20 minutes by myself,’ she says.
‘Suddenly out of nowhere the man appeared and grabbed me from behind. I was in my school uniform – a blue-and-white salwar kameez. He ripped it off and stuffed the scarf in my mouth so I couldn’t shout.’
The frightened girl couldn’t fight off the man. ‘I was shivering and crying. I kept struggling but he was too strong for me.’ She claims he raped her in broad daylight in a little thicket just off the road before threatening to hurt and humiliate her if she told anyone what had happened. ‘Then he just walked away,’ she says.
Petrified and ashamed, Ranjana, who was only 14 at the time, tried to forget the harrowing episode and get on with her life. ‘My dream was to become a teacher,’ she says, ‘and I didn’t want my parents to forbid me from going to school, so I kept silent and continued as if nothing had happened.’
However, when a couple of months later she began experiencing severe nausea, dizziness and exhaustion, she confided in her friends. ‘They said I could be pregnant,’ says Ranjana. ‘It was such a shock. I had never thought that I could be having a baby.
‘I knew I had to tell my parents. I was sure they would be devastated. I know what it means for an unmarried girl to be pregnant in our village. But I was trapped.’ She finally confided in her mother, a homemaker, who broke down and, sobbing, told her husband what had happened when he came home from work.
‘He was so shocked he just crumpled to the floor,’ the teen says. ‘Then he was angry but the anger quickly turned to pain and frustration because he knew we would not be able to fight the attacker because that man was very well placed.’
So he decided to follow the traditional way. ‘My father begged the man to marry me so that our family’s honour would be saved and I would not end up being an unwed mother,’ says Ranjana. ‘But the man said I was lying and threatened to kill me. I knew then my life was over. The dream of finishing school, getting a job and marrying a good man and starting a family in the proper way was gone forever.
‘But I refused to have an abortion. Firstly it’s not the baby’s fault and secondly, I knew if the baby was born, I could prove the rape and the chances of the perpetrator getting either arrested or marrying me would be far greater.
‘I hope I get justice sooner rather than later,’ she says.
Just 20km from Ranjana’s village, Rukhsar Khatun* shares the same plight. Just 16, she is busy breastfeeding her three-month-old son Salim, who she conceived after being allegedly raped last year. ‘I was attacked in my school by a man who was a neighbour and who we all used to call uncle,’ she says.
A grade 10 student, Rukhsar was in school one day when the 30-something man asked her to meet him in an empty classroom.
‘He began by asking about my family, then abruptly told me he that he liked me very much and grabbed me and started touching me all over my body. When I tried to scream he covered my mouth with his hands before he pushed me down on the ground, and raped me.’
Shocked, she was too ashamed to tell anyone, until she realised she was pregnant a few months later.
Her parents were devastated when she told them, but following the traditional village custom, pleaded with the rapist to marry their daughter. ‘He refused and claimed he had nothing to do with me,’ says Rukhsar. The man was arrested and is now in prison awaiting trial.
Rukshar says if her rapist will marry her, she will drop the case, allowing him to walk free. However, because he continues to refuse marriage his case is likely to drag on in court. She now spends every day at home, hiding from the community and the shame of having a child after rape.
‘The father of my child raped me but what will I tell my child when he grows up? I love him very much but I don’t know what my future holds. Whatever it is I have decided that I will go on.’
Meanwhile, Ranjana shrouds her face with her sari, reluctant and still embarrassed to look at strangers.
‘The horrifying attack lasted half an hour but that man has destroyed my life for ever,’ she says, rocking her baby to sleep. ‘I will have to live with the consequences for the rest of my life.’
Bihar’s State Human Rights Commission has urged the government to frame a policy to deal with rape victims.
But until then victims like Ranjana, Lalita and Rukhsar will continue to struggle, their lives torn apart by ruthless men.