Officers detained the young woman from Madhya Pradesh state in central India. They beat her with a stick, she says, until she agreed to drop the charges. She was abandoned by her husband and threatened by the accused men.
“I have lost everything and everyone blames me,” said Kajal, an assumed name.
Five years since a brutal gang-rape that galvanised a movement against sexual assault in India, women who report the crime are still routinely harassed by police or bullied into silence, according to research released in Delhi on Wednesday.
The Human Rights Watch report found that willingness to report rape and other sexual offences had significantly grown, but was often stymied by regressive community attitudes, particularly outside big cities.
In one case highlighted in the report, a “low-caste” woman from Haryana state was pressured by her village council to sabotage a trial against six men from a more powerful caste charged with raping her.
“[She] didn’t have another way,” a relative of the woman told HRW. “If you want to live in the village, you have to listen to the [councils].”
Implementation of laws intended to protect women, passed after the 2012 attack on student Jyoti Singh, was also patchy, activists said.
Researchers discovered one hospital in Rajasthan state continued to administer “two-finger” tests – in which doctors insert fingers into the vagina to determine if a woman is sexually active – though the practice was banned across India in 2013.
Access to support services such as healthcare or legal aid was also inadequate.
“Women and girls said that they received almost no attention to their health needs, including counselling, even when it was clear they had a great need for it,” the report said.
Vrinda Grover, a supreme court lawyer who specialises in sexual assault cases, said the willingness of women to report sexual crimes had grown “miraculously”.
Nearly 35,000 rape cases were reported to police and 7,000 convictions recorded in 2015, a nearly 40% increase in three years.
“Women are fighting against very heavy odds and are not giving up,” Grover said. “Even if they have to leave home or their families, they are seeking justice. The system is no longer going unchallenged.”
Many individual judges and police officers had also emerged as leaders in “trying to make the system work”, she said.
But she said progress of the past five years had still not reached enough Indian women from less powerful castes, religious minorities, or those living in villages and small cities.
“The kind of resistance they are suffering, both from the system and from society, reflects the true face of where we are,” Grover said. “The system continues to be unresponsive and society has not changed.”
The report found that newly introduced sexual crimes such as harassment, voyeurism and stalking were too frequently not taken seriously, with police often delaying investigating the crimes or filing charges.
In some cases, accused men used the delays to make threats against the alleged victims and their families.
“What is needed is proper training, procedure and accountability for public officials who fail to uphold the security, dignity and rights of survivors,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s south Asia director.
“It takes time to change mindsets, but the Indian government should ensure medical, counselling and legal support to victims and their families, and at the same time do more to sensitise police officers, judicial officials and medical professionals on the proper handling of sexual violence cases.”
The report, based on more than 60 interviews, also recommended that India urgently implement a victim and witness protection programme.