By Ashwini Devare
The Jakarta Post

Two teenage girls wait until darkness falls so they can head off to the open fields to answer calls of nature.

At least the darkness protects them from prying eyes and affords them the dignity they deserve.

Afraid of the lengthening shadows of the night, they go together, feeling assured of safety in a pair.

A few hours later, the very darkness that was meant to shield them has swallowed them. They are murdered in a manner so brutal and bestial, it can only be attributed to sub-human behaviour.

As dawn streaks the sky, the world wakes up to a blood-chilling image of two children, which is what these 14 and 15 year-old girls were, hanging, by the lengths of their own scarves, to a mango tree. Their bodies sway, ever so slightly, in a village breeze.

Staring up at them are shocked onlookers, including the impressionable young children of Katra Sadatganj, a small village in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest and most populous state.

Just a few weeks ago, the country ushered in a brand new government, riding on the crest of euphoria.

Hopes are high. Yet, here, in the backwaters of this state, it matters little. The hope is dashed to dust.

The two girls belonged to the lower Dalit caste. Their impoverished village lacks toilet facilities and open defecation is a way of life. That their lives were snuffed out, because they did not have access to a toilet, sounds anachronistic in the 21st century. But it is a normal practice for millions of women across India.

“Around 65 percent of the rural population in India defecates in the open and women and girls are expected to go out at night. This does not only threaten their dignity, but their safety as well,” says Louis-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF’s representative to India.

Sulabh International, an NGO headed by well-known social worker Bindeshwar Pathak, has stepped in and pledged to build toilets in all the houses in the village where the girls were murdered.

The NGO is urging India’s top business houses to adopt a village and put a full stop to open defecation. It’s a clarion call that must tug hard at the conscience. It is a known fact that many girls don’t go to school because there are no toilets for them.

But while the physical solutions will be easier to put in place, the real stumbling block is changing mind-sets. How does one alter attitudes that have prevailed for centuries?

In son-centric societies like India, a deep chasm splits gender equality.

Globalization and aspirational lifestyles have pushed up demands for dowry.

An Indian social activist: An Indian social activist holds a placard as policemen (background) look on during a rally on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Kolkata in November last year. The activists pledged to wage a struggle against all forms of violence against women. (AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar)

An Indian social activist: An Indian social activist holds a placard as policemen (background) look on during a rally on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Kolkata in November last year. The activists pledged to wage a struggle against all forms of violence against women. (AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar)

Even though India’s Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 makes the giving and taking of dowry illegal, it is widely prevalent across classes and castes.

Dowry often involves large sums of money that girls’ parents have to cough up to marry their girls, which they can ill afford.

In the meantime, the sexual objectification of women through “item songs” in Bollywood films and regressive television serials are also seen as factors reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Mallika Dutt, founder of Breakthrough, an international human rights organization, has been a crusader against abuse and violence toward women for the last thirty years.

“For women, their second class status intersects with caste, religion, development failures, and poverty to compound the abuses they experience. Our cultural and social norms are also responsible for the status of women and as a society we need to take responsibility for the levels of violence that women experience today,” she says.

Globally too, we are seeing a rise in violent crimes against women. The United Nations has rightly deemed violence against women to be a human rights issue, not only a woman’s issue.

That millions of Indian women must go to the fields to relieve themselves is an egregious inconvenience heaped on them. They face ridicule and shame.

Many talk about being followed by men as they walk to the fields or harassed by men who flash lights in their faces while they relieve themselves. That they bear this humiliation every day of their life, with resolute stoicism, is a testament to their dignity, strength and endurance.

What we, in the developed world take for granted as our fundamental right, is a matter of life and death for them. For the two teenage girls, it became their killing field.

The sight of the sisters hanging from the tree will be seared into our collective memory for years to come.

The haunting image should serve as a catalyst, a powerful reminder of the responsibility each one of us has to prevent another such horrific crime from occurring.

In a fast-paced, materially obsessed world, we have to find pause for compassion and sensitivity, two prerequisites that are becoming lost in the frantic race for more.

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