A 20-year-old woman who says she was gang-raped in an tribal region on orders of a village court has been placed under police protection, along with her family, and will be relocated after being ostracised by villagers, officials said on Sunday.
The case has made waves in India, underscoring how sexual violence has become a huge social and political issue after the rape and murder of a physiotherapist on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012, an attack that sparked nationwide demonstrations. The tribal woman, recovering in hospital, has told police she was assaulted on Monday night in the Birbhum district of West Bengal state in eastern India as punishment for having a relationship with a man from a different community.
Police said they had arrested 13 men suspected of involvement. "The girl wants to go back to another village where her uncle lives in the same district," West Bengal Women and Child Welfare Minister Shashi Panja told Reuters. "She is scared of going back to the village where she was gang-raped since the villagers there do not want her back. The girl's family is also under protection of the police now."
Many villagers have denied the girl was raped, according to local media reports. The case has also highlighted the prevalence of kangaroo village courts that are not uncommon in rural regions. In northern parts of India, these illegal de-facto courts settle cases ranging from land disputes to murder cases. Such councils are coming under growing scrutiny as their punitive edicts grow more regressive - ranging from banning women from wearing Western clothing to sanctioning the lynching of young couples in so-called "honour killings".
A Reuters photographer who visited the West Bengal village said many residents said they did not want the girl to return. The house where the family used to live was found abandoned. Police say that the woman's male companion was tied up in the village square, while the assault on the woman was taking place in a mud house. The man has now gone missing from the village, relatives say.
The couple were ordered to pay a fine of 25,000 rupees ($400), said the victim's mother, adding that the village head then ordered the rape of her daughter. Sporadic protests flared in West Bengal on Friday, where earlier this month there were large demonstrations against police accused of failing to act on the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl who was later murdered. India toughened laws on sex crimes in March last year after the brutal assault in Delhi.
The issue was highlighted in media again earlier this month after a 51-year-old Danish tourist was gang-raped in central Delhi by at least five men whom she had asked for directions.
(Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Ron Popeski)