Two sisters in Uttar Pradesh have been found raped, murdered and hanging from a tree in the latest incident of sexual violence to shock India.
The bodies of the girls, aged 15 and 17, were found suspended from a tree by their shawls near their home in Lakhimpur district on Wednesday afternoon. They belonged to the Dalit caste, the lowest in India’s hierarchical and discriminatory Hindu caste system, which used to deem Dalits as “untouchables”.
Police said the postmortem examination confirmed both sisters were raped after being dragged into a sugarcane field and then strangled to death, before being hanged from the tree to make their deaths look like suicide.
Six men, including a neighbor of the family, have been arrested and charged with crimes including rape, murder and helping to abet and cover up the murder.
“The girls were raped in the fields. When they insisted that the men marry them, the men strangled them with theirs dupattas [shawls],” the district police chief, Sanjeev Suman, told reporters.
According to the police, the men, who were all from the same village, had been known to the girls and the pair had gone with them willingly on Wednesday afternoon.
The mother of the two girls disputed this account and said two of the men had turned up at the house on Wednesday afternoon and forcibly took away her daughters on scooters. “I tried to stop them and run behind them, but they beat me up and left. I shouted and ran back to seek help from the villagers,” she told local media.
The police handed the bodies back to the family but they refused to carry out the cremation until the government promised a fast-track trial and compensation.
The incident triggered local protests and criticism of the ruling government of Uttar Pradesh, led by the hardline Hindu nationalist monk Yogi Adityanath, who has been accused of not doing enough to protect women from rape and sexual violence, particularly those from the poor and lower-caste backgrounds. In 2020, there was a mass outcry after a Dalit girl was raped and murdered in Hathras, another district in Uttar Pradesh.
Brajesh Pathak, the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said the perpetrators would face “such an action that the souls of their coming generations will also shiver. Justice will be given.”
The incident highlighted the ongoing scandal of rape and violence against women in India, which was found to be the most dangerous country to be a woman in a 2018 poll by the Reuters Foundation.
Last month, the Indian National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported a 19% increase in rape cases over the past year compared to 2020, an average of 87 cases a day. The NCRB data also shows there was a 45% rise in reported rapes of Dalit women between 2015 and 2020.
However, the true extent of the sexual violence against women and girls in India is thought to be far greater than the figures show, especially among the Dalit community where there is widespread under-reporting of rape. One estimate, based on government data, concluded that 99% of sexual violence cases went unreported.
Jacqui Hunt, the global lead on sexual violence for the advocacy group Equality Now, said: “The horrific reported rape and murder of these two young sisters joins a heartbreaking list of appalling caste-based crimes of sexual violence that have triggered public protest in India .”
The group has documented the plight of Dalit women in India, who are disproportionately subjected to sexual violence but denied access to justice.
In June, a 13-year-old Dalit girl was found gang-raped and murdered in Uttar Pradesh’s Chitrakoot district. In 2021, a nine-year-old Dalit girl was gang-raped. A six-year-old Dalit girl was raped two days later in a separate incident in Delhi.
Hunt was critical of the “lack of significant efforts” to address caste-based sexual violence, even as cases continued to be thrust into the spotlight.
“We welcome efforts by the Indian government to prevent and address sexual violence,” she added. “Yet systemic change is desperately needed, incorporating good laws and protections that are effectively implemented to protect caste minorities and uphold perpetrator accountability.”