A wave of sexual assaults has rocked the northern Indian state of Haryana. In the last month alone, a dozen mostly Dalit girls and women have been raped, raising concerns about the security of women in India.
Sitting on the steps of the dilapidated one-storey home in Haryana's Jind district, the president of India's ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi could not hold back her emotion as she tried to comfort the family of a Dalit girl who was gang-raped last weekend and then committed suicide.
"She hugged me and said it wasn't just me who had lost a daughter," said the mother of the teenager who set herself on fire with kerosene after being raped. "She promised me justice and that the captors would be brought to justice."
News of over 13 reported rapes in Haryana, which adjoins Delhi, within just 28 days, has shocked the country. And just as Mrs Gandhi's visit to Haryana to review the law and order situation in the state was ending on Tuesday, there were reports of two more rapes.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has termed the spate of reported gang-rapes as "alarming" and demanded that exemplary punishment be meted out to the perpetrators.
"We are demanding that the state government take up the issue of security for women in a serious manner," NCPCR chairperson Shanta Sinha told DW. "The state has one of the worst sex ratios in the country and there is an urgent need for a public awareness campaign in favor of girls."
According to the 2011 national census, the sex ratio in Haryana is 830 girls to 1,000 boys.
"There is a scarcity of girls. There is a history of 'importing' women from other states for marriage. This is creating an atmosphere that is precarious. In fact, two rapes a day have been almost a norm in the state from the start of 2012," said Ranjana Kumari director of the Centre for Social Research.
Figures from the National Crime Records Bureau figures confirm this disturbing trend. In seven years, rape cases have nearly doubled, from 386 in 2004 to 733 in 2011. Between January and August this year alone, there have been 455 rapes. And this figure could be higher since many cases go unreported.
The role of the influential "khap panchayats," or caste councils, which pronounce judgments on marriageable girls and the boys they should marry to retain "family honor" has also been called into question.
The state's khap panchayats recently suggested that the marriageable age for girls should be reduced to 16 years to avoid such incidents.
It is especially hard for women in rural areas
For his part, Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda said the increase in the rape figures was due to the prompt registration of police cases.
"Anybody who commits a crime against a member of any community is a criminal," he said. "There is no caste angle to the crimes that have happened recently."
The state authorities have been criticized over their response to the sexual assaults. Some state leaders even said that the reports in the Indian media were part of a “political conspiracy” to discredit the government.
According to a poll conducted by Thomson Reuters' Trustlaw Women this year, India is the most dangerous country of the G20 for women because of child marriage, feticide and infanticide, sexual trafficking, domestic slave labor, domestic violence and high maternal mortality.