Sonia Gandhi, front right, the leader of India's ruling Congress… (AFP/Getty Images )
NEW DELHI — Politics, an official's controversial comments about rape, and an upcoming election.
This may sound like a senatorial race in Missouri, but it's all part of a scandal that's unfolded in India over the last week. The anger, introspection and frustration among women's groups and social critics, however, have echoed American reaction to recent suggestions by Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) that women's bodies are able to prevent pregnancy in the event of "legitimate rape."
The issue hit the headlines here when a 16-year-old girl committed suicide in the northern state of Haryana this month after being raped.
On Friday, Communist Party of India leader Brinda Karat threatened to stage a major protest early this week over the crime, lack of follow-up and insensitive comments by officials that appeared to justify or excuse rape.
The girl's family, meanwhile, is struggling to make sense of the tragedy.
"I can't even imagine what she was feeling," said her uncle, Satyavan, 30, a government employee who uses one name.
"She was scared, terrified," he said. "She probably felt ashamed. She said she feared her family would beat her because she'd been raped."
The media have highlighted rape statistics from Haryana — including more than a dozen high-profile sexual attacks in the last few weeks — to argue that the government isn't doing enough. "15 Rapes, 30 days, Zero Sensitivity," said a banner headline on a nationwide "Times Now" television broadcast Friday.
Aware that the incident offered an opening to political opponents as state and national elections approach, India's most powerful woman and head of the ruling Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, made a well-publicized trip last week to visit the victim's family, vowing tough action against the attackers.
Although several senior political leaders are female, women's social status in India ranks low in most international surveys. A poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation in August rated women in India the worst off among the world's top 20 economies, just behind Saudi Arabia.
In a nation where female infanticide is prevalent, Haryana has the worst record: 830 girls born for every 1,000 boys, compared with a national average of 914 girls for every 1,000 boys.
Haryana, a wealthy and conservative state adjoining Delhi, is known for its male-dominated local councils, called khap panchayats, that often assert iron-fisted control over a dozen or so contiguous villages, frequently serving as de facto judges and enforcers.
The khaps have a history of repressing women and Dalits, the lowest-ranking, or so-called untouchable, caste members. The councils often openly justify, or even order, "honor killings," in which relatives or neighbors kill young lovers who marry in violation of caste rules. The slayings frequently go unpunished because of the khaps' political clout.
"They're kangaroo courts dominated by rich landowners," said Ranjana Kumari, director of Delhi's Center for Social Research think tank. "But no government in Haryana has the courage to stop, or even speak out against, khap panchayats. They have money and political power."
The mind-set of some khap members was evident last week when Sube Singh, a khap official representing the area where the girl's rape and suicide occurred, argued that the best way to stop rape was to have girls marry young.
"This way rapes will not occur," Singh said, according to India's state PTI news service.
The statement sparked outrage among civic groups, women's advocacy organizations and reform-minded lawyers in a country where it's not uncommon for rape victims, considered tainted, to be pressured into marrying their attackers and dropping charges.
"The remarks suggest it's legitimate to have child marriages," said Indira Jaising, a senior Supreme Court lawyer and women's rights activist. "It points to the idea that marriage justifies rape. Adult women may be able to resist rape in marriage, but what chance is there with a child?"
United Nations agencies report that 40% of the world's child marriages are in India.
India recorded more than 24,600 rapes in 2011, up from 19,300 in 2006 and an 870% increase from 1971, when India started keeping records. And Haryana reported 733 rapes last year, compared with 608 five years ago. The sharp jump, experts say, is partly because of social changes, rapid urbanization and poor police work.
Women's groups argue that the real number of rapes may be much higher. given rape's stigma, its effect on marriage prospects and the time and money involved in pursuing a case in India's creaky courts, which now convict about 27% of those prosecuted for rape, down from 44% in 1973.
Congress Party officials had hoped Gandhi's visit would reduce the political fallout, but a local lawmaker reignited the controversy late last week by arguing that most rapes were essentially self-inflicted.