Police in northern India have arrested three men, including two police officers, and are searching for at least four more after two teenage girls were found hanged from the branches of a mango tree after being gang-raped.
A postmortem indicated that the cousins, aged 14 and 15, hanged themselves after being repeatedly assaulted by a group of men in their village, in the Budaun district of the huge, poverty-stricken state of Uttar Pradesh.
The social stigma attached to being a rape victim in conservative India frequently leads to suicides. Earlier reports suggested the victims were strangled.
The incident provoked angry demonstrations locally and outrage elsewhere in the country. “It is a gruesome, barbaric act. The whole nation has been up against this, but every day there is this kind of problem,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research and a women’s rights activist.
Indian television channels showed footage of the villagers sitting under the girls’ bodies as they swung in the wind, preventing authorities from taking them down until the suspects were arrested. The bodies had been found on Wednesday morning, hours after the two teenagers had disappeared from fields near their home in Katra, 240km from Delhi, police superintendent Atul Saxena said.
Around half of India’s 1.25 billion inhabitants do not have access to a toilet. Women are vulnerable to assault because they use fields around villages instead.
Family members named two policemen who they said had taken part in the assault and accused others of refusing to take action when they complained of repeated harassment of the two teenagers. They also accused the head of the local police station of ignoring a complaint by the girls’ father on Tuesday night that they were missing. He has since been suspended.
“The report suggests antemortem hanging, which means the girls probably committed suicide,” said Mr Saxena.
India tightened its anti-rape laws last year, making gang- rape punishable by the death penalty. The new laws came after protests over the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in New Delhi in December 2012.
That incident led to an unprecedented national debate and to calls for widespread changes in cultural attitudes as well as policing and legal reform. Records show rising incidences of rape in India. Activists say the true number of assaults is higher than suggested by official records because of an entrenched culture of tolerance for sexual violence, which leads many cases to go unreported, and the social stigma which victims suffer.
Last month, the head of Uttar Pradesh’s governing party told an election rally that he opposed the law calling for gang- rapists to be executed. “Boys will be boys. They make mistakes,” said Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is also the father of the state’s chief minister.