As incidents of rape and human trafficking increase in the state of Orissa, it has been claimed that the rise is a direct result of the anti-Christian violence that erupted there in 2008.
Mamta Sharma, president of the National Commission for Women told a press conference earlier this month that two years ago, the state recorded around 750 rapes. This year's figure has reached 1,213.
“Volunteers are following up 24 cases of rape in the Kandhamal district alone,” says Sister Divya Raphael, a Catholic nun working to bring justice to the victims, who are mainly Dalits and tribals.
Sister Bimala Kujur, who also works with victimized families, adds that trafficking is another "huge issue" in the area.
People from poor families are lured away by the promise of jobs, sometimes by a victim from the same village. Their families realize the deception only when they lose contact. "But by then it’s too late," Sister Kujur says.
Their work through networking and newspaper advertisements has helped find a few of the many women who have gone missing, she says. “But the rest are thought to be working in homes in cities or tangled up in a sex racket.”
Both nuns agree that victims and their families often conceal rape and trafficking incidents, for fear of social condemnation. The real number of cases may well be much higher than any statistics suggest.
Father Ajay Kumar Singh, a human rights activist in the area, is one of those who attributes the high incidence to the Orissa riots, in which Hindu groups rampaged through Christian communities for almost two months, killing around 100 people and burning down their houses and churches.
He believes that after the violence, crimes began to go up in the area because "people's sense of impunity went up."
Hundreds of people who attacked Christians were acquitted, many without trial; in several cases people found guilty of murder received only a light jail term. "Now people have a feeling that you can commit any crime and go scot free. And that increases crimes against the poor," he says.
The police, however, maintain that registered cases of rape and trafficking appear to have gone up simply because they are reported more often. The district’s top police officer J. N. Pankaj hotly denies that the force does not do enough to tackle the problems.
"It is wrong to accuse the police of inaction,” he says. “Our role in checking crimes has been recognized even by the courts."
He believes the rise in these crimes springs from a complex set of socio-economic conditions and the segment that suffers the most from them is the poor of Orissa. "The police alone cannot resolve these socio-economic issues,” he says. “It should be a combined effort of all: administration, social workers, volunteers and media.”
But while debates continue over the true numbers and the reasons behind these incidents, the human tragedies remain.
Bipin Digal’s 13-year-old daughter was raped and murdered last October.
His wife Anandajali says they are "worried and sacred." They have sent their younger daughter to a church-run hostel because "we are afraid the same fate will befall her.”
Their neighbor Archana Digal now wants to send her seven-year-old to a hostel too.
Archana admits she "will feel sorry" if her daughter goes away. "But I want her to be safe," she says.
Originally published at UCAnews on 26 July. Used by permission, all other rights reserved.