New Delhi: When she was three, she was adopted by her paternal uncle and aunt as they didn’t have any children. After her aunt passed away, she continued to live with her 50-year-old uncle whom she called ‘papa’.

It was after his wife’s death that ‘papa’ started touching the teenage girl, now a 15-year old, inappropriately. The rape that followed was almost inevitable.

Who could the teenager turn to? Who could she tell? Her biological father had died and mother had remarried and had a family of her own.

Crying was her only form of resistance until one day, another paternal aunt and cousin came to stay at the house.

This time ‘papa’ tied her hands and feet and stuffed her mouth with a cloth to ensure she didn’t cry out aloud. It was a coincidence that night that her cousin woke up to see the 15-year-old writhing on the bed, trying to kick her legs.

Horrific as it is, the case of the 15-year-old is not an isolated one.

The danger within

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures for 2014 show that across the country, 86% of all rapes were committed by acquaintances. Analysis of the data available with Delhi police for the same period showed that nearly 96% of rapes were committed by those known to the victim or her family members.

According to NCRB data, out of a total of 37,413 cases of rape registered in India in 2014, in 32,187 cases, the accused was known to the victim and in 674 of them, the accused was the father, brother, grandfather or son of the victim.

In 966 cases, the accused was a close family member other than a blood relative. In 2,217 cases, the person accused of rape was a distant family relative while in 8,344 cases, the accused happened to be a neighbour of the victim. In 618 cases, the accused was an employer or a co-worker of the victim while in 19,368 cases the rape accused was otherwise previously known to the victim.

In a slum in Mangolpuri, it was like any other day for this family of two. The mother of the 14-year-old mentally challenged girl had gone out for work. She worked as a daily labourer; her husband had died a few years ago. She had trained her daughter accordingly, telling her when she had to eat and that she could not step out without her mother.

Eight months ago, taking advantage of the girl being alone at home, a 35-year-old neighbour barged in, knowing exactly when the mother stepped out. He raped her, knowing she could not even tell her mother or anyone what happened. It was only when her mother noticed a protruding belly, months later, that she realized something was wrong. It was too late for an abortion.

As revealed by the NCRB data and specifically investigated by The Hindu, “Among rapes committed by a neighbour or acquaintance, half involved a man in a slum assaulting the minor daughter of his neighbour either by luring her while she was playing outside or taking her to his house."

Nav Srishti, a non-governmental organization for child rights and women’s empowerment, supported by non-profit Child Rights and You, has seen an increase in such cases. “Parents go out to work and there is no one to take care of the children or even to keep an eye on who comes in and who goes out. Neighbours can very easily lure children because they already trust them," says Reena Banerjee, Nav Shrishti’s founder and secretary.

Because of the social stigma associated with sexual crimes, rape in general is still vastly under-reported; according to police estimates only four of 10 are ever reported. When the perpetrator is a family member, this under-reporting only increases.

And since marital rape (according to the Demographic and Health Surveys used in the UN Women database, 97.7% of all sexual violence is perpetrated by husbands, as quoted by The Hindu in December 2014.) is not considered a crime in India, statistics on rape only represent those reported and those that occur outside the marital relationship.

“This whole paranoia about all danger to women is outside their homes is a way of keeping women inside the houses and to keep them under check. Those who rape are people who have some sort of a power within the family. And not speaking about it preserves their control over women. Of course Indians have this romantic notion of a family, but everywhere, statistics show that most women are raped by people known to them," says Anuja Agrawal, associate professor, sociology department, Delhi University.

The law

The 2012 Delhi gangrape resulted in several changes in rape laws. Governments also started looking for ways to protect women in public places—assuming that most rapes are in fact committed by strangers—in buses or abandoned mills.

A recent study by Majlis Legal Centre, a group of women lawyers working for social change, analysed the first information reports lodged between 1 March 2014 and 31 March 2015 in Mumbai for rape and sexual assault and found that 218 cases, which account for 90% of all reported rapes in the period, were committed by persons known to the victims—including 16% by a family member. Of these, 73% were by either the father or the stepfather.

In July, a 45-year-old man in Mumbai was arrested on charges of raping his daughter for six years, from the time she turned seven. In her police complaint, the girl also accused her mother of not acting against her father. She alleged that her mother would watch silently as he raped her. The girl added that her mother would later give her some pills.

“It is apparent from the data we have that young girls make the decision to file a case after continuous abuse. Most often, there is no support from family members to register the complaint. In many cases we have observed that while the mother may have supported the girl to register the case, later due to family pressure the mother withdraws her support or the girl is asked to withdraw the case," states the Majlis report, Pursuing this thing called justice: a survivor centric approach towards victims of sexual violence.

Acquaintance rape is a subject not taken up by mainstream Indian cinema, in which a rapist is the stereotypical villain, an enemy or a stranger. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding was an exception; it dealt with incest and child molestation. In the movie, the initial reaction of the family is one of surprise and disbelief when a character reveals that an uncle used to touch her improperly when she was a child

Moreover, since rapes committed by family members are almost always perpetrated on a young child, the decision to report or remain silent are taken by an adult, usually the mother or an elder sibling acting on the child’s behalf. In many cases, a prime fear is the loss of income that would arise from the arrest of the father. “In a lot of instances, police don’t even register such cases. Then there is a lot of pressure on the mother in cases of rapes of minors by family members because the law is stringent for someone known," says Smriti Minocha, director of the Women Justice Initiative, Human Rights Law Network. “The state doesn’t look into the rehabilitation or restoration of victims of rape or even domestic violence."

In theory, the new law does specify stringent penalties for anyone found guilty of using his position as a protector of a victim to assault her sexually. Yet, when the accused is a family member, the family’s instinct is to close ranks, particularly if the accused is the father or key bread-winner, and to protect him. Mothers are reluctant to break up families.

“Non-consensual sexual relation within the family—by blood or by marriage—is fairly common across classes in this country. These findings are just public data confirmation of the existing trend. Offenders in such cases have a mistaken idea that no matter what, the victim will not report this and they will get away with it," says Nimesh Desai, director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences .

Instead of looking for reasons why men in such relationships rape, what is worth exploring is how this behaviour can be modified, says Desai.

“We need to take a much more realistic position about sexuality and provide healthy options for its expression. Mothers or other people around should carefully observe behaviours within the family," he says. Equally crucially, young girls need to be taught the difference between ‘bad touch’ and ‘good touch’ and should be given provisions of reporting such incidents if they happen, he adds.

The 15-year-old is now living with her mother’s other family members and her uncle is in jail. The teenager in Mangolpuri, who still plays with dolls and hardly speaks, delivered a baby last month.

As Majlis’ Flavia Agnes, who conducted the latest study, says, the legal system in India is still conviction-driven and lacks victim support.

“Even if the offender gets convicted, what about these girls? Where do they go? We have no system to support girls in such conditions. The system needs to ensure these girls don’t fall back into a vulnerable zone and get raped again," says Agnes.

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