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Alleged rapist and his mother set teenage girl on fire after learning she was pregnant, Indian police say

By Rhea Mogul, Swati Gupta and Manveena Suri, CNN

A 15-year-old girl is being treated at a hospital in northern India after she was allegedly set on fire by a man accused of raping and impregnating her in the latest case of violence against women to shock the country.

Kamlesh Kumar Dixit, a senior police official in Uttar Pradesh state, told CNN the man, 18, and his mother were arrested on Monday on suspicion of attempted murder after they allegedly poured kerosene on the girl and set her ablaze on October 6.

Police also accuse the man — who is a cousin of the alleged victim — of raping her about three months ago after which she became pregnant, Dixit said.

Upon learning of the girl’s pregnancy, her family and the family of the alleged rapist had discussed whether the two should get married, Dixit added.

Citing police, the Press Trust of India — the country’s largest news agency — reported the girl was lured to the alleged rapist’s home on the pretext of getting married to him when she was allegedly set alight. However, Dixit declined to comment when asked about this detail.

India has long grappled with an epidemic of violence against women and girls in the deeply patriarchal country. And campaigners say the alleged involvement of a woman in this latest case demonstrates the scale of internalized misogyny in society.

“I’ve become so numb to stories like this. There is a lack of empathy in our country,” said Yogita Bhayana, an anti-rape activist from New Delhi. “For years, we have been trying to change things. This case demonstrates a failure of our system. The girl should have been helped.”

The girl’s condition and the status of her pregnancy are unknown. CNN has reached out to the hospital where she is being treated for comment.

‘Loopholes in every corner’

Dixit, the police official, said the alleged rape took place around three months ago in Mainpuri — about 270 kilometers (167 miles) southeast of India’s capital, New Delhi.

The district in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, is a key target for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” (Save the Girl Educate the Girl) campaign, aimed at improving gender equality in the country.

Sprawling billboards with the campaign’s slogan and Modi’s photograph are a staple in the country’s northern states. But activists say in the seven years since its implementation, little has been done to empower women and girls, and violent crimes against women persist.

In December last year the campaign came under scrutiny for spending nearly 80% of its funds on advertisements, instead of education programs to facilitate change.

“You can have all the billboards in the world, but that alone will not solve this huge crisis in our country,” said Bhayana, adding money should be spent on educating young boys and girls about consent, respect and women’s rights, and training police officers to better deal with sexual assault cases.

According to Bhayana, many men still see rape as an “act of power” over women. And most of the time, the violence goes unreported as the victim is too afraid to go to the police, or is often taught they’re ultimately to blame for any wrongdoing, she added.

Those beliefs appear to have played out in this case too, as the girl did not report her alleged rape for three months, according to Dixit.

“There are loopholes in every corner,” Bhayana said, referring to India’s patriarchal social fabric and notoriously slow legal system.

In 2019, the central government approved a plan to open more than 1,000 fast-track courts across India to help clear a backlog of rape cases and sexual offenses against minors.

However, according to data submitted by the minister of law and justice in the upper house of Parliament in December 2021, fewer than 700 such courts had been established.

Patriarchy in the courts

Brutal acts of violence often make headlines in Uttar Pradesh.

In December 2019, a woman died in the state after she was set on fire as she traveled to testify at the trial of two men accused of raping her. The following year, a 19-year-old woman from the Dalit community — the lowest strata in India’s caste system — died after she was allegedly gang-raped and strangled by upper caste men, in a case that highlighted the struggles faced by minority communities.

And while India has, in recent years, taken some strides to protect women, the country’s courts have in the past come under sharp criticism for some of their controversial judgments in sexual assault cases.

In August, a judge in the southern state of Kerala ruled a woman wore “provocative” clothing, effectively dismissing her sexual assault complaint, sparking outrage in the country.

In 2017, a Delhi High Court judge said a man deserved “the benefit of the doubt” while acquitting him on rape charges, adding a “feeble ‘no'” could still signal willingness on the part of an alleged victim.

In another case in January 2021, a Bombay High Court Judge found that a 39-year-old man was not guilty of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl as he had not removed her clothes, meaning there was no skin-on-skin contact.

Legal reforms and more severe penalties for rape were introduced following the brutal 2012 gang-rape of a medical student in Delhi, but activists like Bhayana say more should be done to protect women and girls in the country.

“We are failing our women. Such brutality should never happen,” Bhayana said.

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