Outrage and protests broke out in the Jantar Mantar area of Delhi last month as the story of the gang-rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl spread across India.
Asifa Bano’s mutilated remains resurfaced in a nearby forest a week after the girl’s parents filed a police report. According to investigator reports, she was held captive in a local temple and kept unconscious by way of sedatives; the BBC reports that a charge sheet alleges she was “raped for days, tortured and then finally murdered.” A 60-year-old government official is charged with planning the crime with the help of police officers.
Bano’s father, Muhammad Yusuf Pujwala, alleges that police on the scene took the crime lightly. One even suggested that his young daughter had gone missing because she had “eloped” with a boy. The officer’s statement, which comes a year after India ruled it illegal to have sex with a child, reinforces how deeply embedded child marriage is in India’s culture, and reveals how connected the practice is to other forms of child sexual abuse.
Asifa Bano’s family sought justice for their daughter for months—and state silence proved no match for the people power on the ground in India that transformed this national trauma into a call to action. In April, four months after her death in January, national papers finally broke the story—and thousands of protestors took to the streets in Asifa’s name. In response, India’s cabinet held an emergency meeting, ultimately announcing amended policies on child sexual abuse that set a new minimum penalty of 20 years in prison for rape of a child, with gang-rape of a child under 12 earning a specific minimum penalty of life in prison or the death penalty. New ordinances also mandate that rape cases be investigated and deliberated through a trial within two months.
100,000 cases similar to Asifa’s are pending in Indian courts, causing local Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi to declare child sexual abuse a “national emergency.” Swati Maliwal, chair of Delhi’s commission for women, ended a nine-day hunger strike over the government’s action after the cabinet’s policies were announced, but echoed Satyarthi in her statements to reporters. The advocate demanded more accountability and resources from police—and found hope in the mobilization of people in India and around the world in the wake of Asifa’s death.
“The whole country was enraged,” Maliwal told reporters, “and it cannot happen that the central government does not listen to us. Some change will occur.”