India town council orders two girls raped as punishment for brother's elopement

India, the largest democratic country in the world, is on the cusp of becoming a modern economic juggernaut. 

But in many ways, it's still mired in the past, as is demonstrated by this outrageous action taken by a town council.

Meenakshi Kuwari, 23, and her 15-year-old sister, have been forced to flee their home after villagers ordered that they should be stripped naked and paraded with their faces blackened before being raped to atone for their brother’s crime.

The case is just the latest high-profile incident of rape being used as a punishment by unelected village leaders or councils in rural India.

Similar cases have shocked the nation and the country’s Supreme Court has ruled the council judgments illegal but the practice persists in remote areas.

The family home was ransacked by furious villagers after her brother fled with a woman from a superior caste.

A hastily-convened assembly of the all-male village council in the district of Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, north of Delhi, then handed down the rape punishment.

The two sisters and their father have fled to Delhi and appealed to India’s Supreme Court for protection if they return to the village.

The women’s father has also raised their plight with the national commissions for castes and human rights.

Summit Kumar, another brother to the sisters, has told human rights campaigners that he fears for their lives if they return. Local police offer little protection and have reportedly denied that the rape punishment was handed down as the village closed ranks against the family.

“The family wants to go back to the village but they are very concerned about the threats against them. These sort of orders are consistently meted out by so-called higher caste village leaders,” said Gopika Bashi, a women’s rights researcher for Amnesty International India.

“The edicts are not done in a formal space and nothing may be written down but that does not mean they will not be carried out.”

Rights activists are also deeply concerned about the woman who eloped with Meenakshi’s brother. She is now in hiding and believed to be pregnant.

Though her case has received less attention, her affair with a lower caste man places her in equal danger to the two sisters.

India was supposed to have "reformed" this complicated social order by making certain jobs and educational opportunities previously closed off to members of the lower caste available to them. But in truth, the system - closely tied to Hinduism - has resisted most reforms outside of the big cities. People have lived with the system for centuries in rural India and the rhythms and traditions of the several hundred thousand small villages are part of everyday life. 

Obviously more must be done. But it seems as long as the caste system is commonplace in India, it's social and economic development will be stunted.


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