Teenage girl fights for her life in India after alleged rapist’s fire attack

By Rhea Mogul, Devendra Singh Chauhan and Vedika Sud, CNN

Mainpuri, India CNN  —  Fears are growing for the survival of a 15-year-old girl who was allegedly set on fire by a family member who is also accused of raping her as she fights for her life at a hospital in northern India.

In a case that has shocked the country, police in Uttar Pradesh state arrested an 18-year-old man and his mother on Monday on suspicion of attempted murder for allegedly pouring kerosene on the girl and setting her ablaze upon learning she was pregnant, according to police officials.

“She’s critical. Doctors are trying to save her but there (may be) no hope of survival,” the girl’s mother told CNN on Thursday.

CNN is not naming the alleged victim or her mother to protect their identities.

The girl suffered burns to about 80% of her body, according to Dr. S.P. Singh, medical superintendent at the University of Medical Sciences, which is treating her.

“She is not out of danger yet,” he said.

On average, India reports one rape every 17 minutes, according to the latest government figures, and campaigners say the girl’s case highlights just how deeply entrenched misogynistic and patriarchal values are in the country of 1.3 billion.

The problem is exacerbated in rural India because women remain largely uneducated and stigma surrounding sexual assault runs rampant, they say.

“This case shows how young girls are still at great risk of of sexual violence,” said Jayna Kothari, a senior advocate at India’s Supreme Court. “The fact is that these cases are becoming more violent because there is no accountability for the perpetrators. People continue such acts with impunity because there is no fear.”

The alleged attack

The girl was allegedly raped about three months ago by her 18-year-old cousin, after which she became pregnant, according to Kamlesh Kumar Dixit, a senior police official in Uttar Pradesh, and the girl’s mother.

But the girl did not tell her mother about the alleged attack, and instead, like many survivors of sexual assault, lived in silence.

When her mother eventually learned of the pregnancy, she agreed to marry the victim to her alleged attacker.

“My sister-in-law (the alleged rapist’s mother) said they would pay for an abortion and get them married. Since we belong to the same family, we settled the matter,” said the girl’s mother, adding she now wants the alleged rapist to be hanged.

Kamlesh Kumar Dixit, a senior police official in Uttar Pradesh, said the alleged rapist and his mother were arrested on Monday on suspicion of attempted murder after they allegedly poured kerosene on the girl and set her on fire.
Kamlesh Kumar Dixit, a senior police official in Uttar Pradesh, said the alleged rapist and his mother were arrested on Monday on suspicion of attempted murder after they allegedly poured kerosene on the girl and set her on fire. Devendra Singh Chauhan for CNN

The idea of a victim marrying her alleged rapist is not unheard of in India, where sexual assault and pregnancy out of wedlock are viewed with a “deep sense of shame and stigma,” according to Kothari, the lawyer.

“It’s hard to change these regressive attitudes,” she said. “Girls are seen as a burden. She would have faced violence and her family would have faced violence, so the family would have wanted to marry her off.”

But when the girl went to her alleged rapist’s house on the pretext of getting married on October 6, he and and his mother allegedly poured kerosene on her and set her alight, Dixit said.

The motive for the alleged attack remains unclear. Police have said they are investigating.

The victim’s home is in a low-income neighborhood in the city of Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Tea, fruit and snack stalls line the muddy sidewalk, while rickshaws and motorcycles run amok on the uneven roads. Goats and cows graze on scraps of food in the distance.

The girl's mother says her daughter's condition is "critical."
The girl’s mother says her daughter’s condition is “critical.” Devendra Singh Chauhan for CNN

If Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest with a population of more than 200 million.

The state is a key target for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” (Save the Girl Educate the Girl) campaign, aimed at improving gender equality in the country. But the campaign seems to have had little impact and horrific acts of violence have made frequent headlines.

Activist Yogita Bhayana said said many men still see rape as an “act of power” over women, and most of the time, the violence goes unreported out of fear.

In December 2019, a woman died in the state after she was set on fire as she traveled to testify at the trial of two men accused of raping her – highlighting the dangers sexual assault survivors face by speaking out.

“When women go to the authorities, they can face even more harm,” Kothari said. “Instead of justice running its course, they are faced with more violence.”

Shame, secrecy and a legal backlog

The alleged involvement of a woman in this case demonstrates the scale of internalized misogyny in society, campaigners say – and it is not the first time something like this has happened.

In January this year, a woman’s hair was cut off and her face painted black before she was paraded along a street in India’s capital Delhi, where some people in a crowd called for her to be raped. Most of the baying mob were women.

Women are taught to uphold patriarchal values from a young age, activists say. And despite the government’s various attempts to strengthen India’s rape laws, it has done little to stem the level of sexual violence in the country, which was ranked the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman in a 2018 Thompson Reuters Foundation survey of experts on women’s issues.

The problem persists because of societal issues, which remain harder to change, activists say, as victims are often taught they are ultimately to blame for any wrongdoing.

Moreover, India’s justice system is “notoriously slow” and can be “traumatic” for the victim of assault, according to Kothari, the lawyer.

In 2019, the central government approved a plan to open more than 1,000 fast-track courts across India to help clear a backlog of rape cases and sexual offenses against minors.

However, according to data submitted by the minister of law and justice in the upper house of Parliament in December 2021, fewer than 700 such courts had been established.

“The process is so punishing for women,” Kothari said. “Even though they are victims, they can end up being vilified in police stations and in the court rooms.”

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