A woman cries near the body of a relative, killed in ethnic violence, at a cremation ground at Narayanguri village, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Saturday, May 3. Rampant violence and sexual assault, particularly against the poor and disenfranchised populations of Indian society, are currently two of the most hotly debated issues in the country.
LUCKNOW, India (AP) — Two teenage sisters in rural India were raped and killed by attackers who hung their bodies from a mango tree, which became the scene of a silent protest by villagers angry about alleged police inaction in the case. Two of the four men arrested so far are police officers.
Villagers found the girls’ bodies hanging from the tree Wednesday morning, hours after they disappeared from fields near their home in Katra village in Uttar Pradesh state, police Superintendent Atul Saxena said Thursday. The girls, who were 14 and 15, had gone into the fields because there was no toilet in their home.
Hundreds of angry villagers stayed next to the tree for the rest of Wednesday, silently protesting the police response. Indian TV footage showed the villagers sitting under the girls’ bodies as they swung in the wind, and preventing authorities from taking them down from the tree until the suspects were arrested.
Katra is about 300 kilometers (180 miles) southwest of the state capital, Lucknow.
Police arrested two police officers and two men from the village later Wednesday and were searching for three more suspects.
Autopsies confirmed the girls had been raped and strangled before being hung, Saxena said.
The villagers accused the chief of the local police station of ignoring a complaint by the girls’ father Tuesday night that the girls were missing. The station chief has since been suspended.
The family belongs to the Dalit community, also called “untouchables” and considered the lowest rung in India’s age-old caste system.
India tightened its anti-rape laws last year, making gang rape punishable by the death penalty, even when the victim survives. The new laws came after the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in New Delhi that triggered nationwide protests.
Health workers, police and women’s rights activists say women and girls face the risk of rape and harassment when they go out into fields or bushes due to the lack of toilets in their homes.
More than half-a-billion Indians lack access to toilets. A recent study said around 30 percent women from poor families faced violent sexual assaults every year because they did not have access to a safe toilet.
Records show a rape is committed every 22 minutes in India, a nation of 1.2 billion people. Activists say that number is low because of an entrenched culture of tolerance for sexual violence, which leads many cases to go unreported. Women are often pressed by family or police to stay quiet about sexual assault, experts say, and those who do report cases are often subjected to public ridicule or social stigma.
Last month, the head of Uttar Pradesh state’s governing party, the regionally prominent Samajwadi Party, told an election rally that the party was opposed to the law calling for gang rapists to be executed.
“Boys will be boys,” Mulayam Singh Yadav said. “They make mistakes.”