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Gang Rape And Murder Of 8-Year-Old Girl Sparks Outrage Across India

Asifa Bano was 8 years old and wearing a purple salwar kameez when she disappeared on Jan. 10.

A week later, on Jan. 17, her mutilated and lifeless body was found in a forest near Kathua in the Indian-controlled region of Kashmir. It was a mile away from Rasana, the village where her family was currently living.

Reports say she was abducted while grazing her horses in a meadow, taken to a prayer hall nearby, sedated for three days, tortured and brutally gang-raped. She was eventually strangled and hit on the head several times with a stone to ensure that she was dead.

On Wednesday, graphic details of the crime and its perpetrators emerged in a charge sheet filed by the Jammu and Kashmir state police. Its contents sparked massive outrage across the country. People gathered for candlelight vigils in protest. And using the hashtag #JusticeForAsifa on social media, citizens are condemning the crime and encouraging each other to speak up to authorities.

Details from the report revealed that the crime was fueled by religious and political tensions between Asifa's tribe, a group of Indian Sunni Muslims called the Bakarwal, and local Hindus who saw them as a threat.

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The conspirators' motive for raping the child, according to the charge sheet, was to drive the Muslim family out of the area.

It also showed that local policemen were accused of perpetrating the crime. When Asifa's family reported her missing in January, among those sent to find her was Deepak Khujaria, a 28-year-old special police officer. Based on DNA evidence, he has since been accused of committing the crime. Three other policemen have been charged with hindering investigations and tampering with DNA evidence, including washing Bano's clothes before sending it in for forensic testing.

Indians were furious that politicians were silent over the issue and that some locals even defended the accused, since they were Hindu. Two Bharatiya Janata Party ministers from India's ruling party, who seek to preserve Hindu ideals, even attended a rally to support the accused. They have since resigned.

For many citizens, Asifa's case was another painful reminder of how prevalent sexual violence is across the country.

It seems the country had not learned its lesson after the brutal gang rape and death of physiotherapy student Jyothi Singh in 2012, says Jasodhara Dasgupta, human rights activist and founder of SAHAYOG, an advocacy group for gender equality and women's rights based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.

"We thought we had made progress in preventing violence against women, but this is a cruel reminder of how little has changed," she says.

As a result of Singh's death, more stringent legal provisions were taken by the Indian government in 2012 to curb sexual violence. The Ministry of Women and Child Development in India, for example, introduced the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

Perhaps that's why the complicity of the police in Asifa's case "has been very painful," says Dasgupta.

Laws against sexual violence aren't enough, says Jayshree Bajoria, a researcher for Human Rights Watch — they must also be enforced. "Police often try to shield influential perpetrators. And there are numerous instances in which victims are unduly pressured to withdraw complaints. We are clearly lacking in fair, transparent, timebound investigations," she says.

Friday, Yuri Afanasiev, the U.N. resident coordinator in India, condemned the crime and called for leadership at the highest level to address sexual violence and ensure accountability.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke out about the case Friday: "I want to assure the country that no culprit will be spared, complete justice will be done. Our daughters will definitely get justice."

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, South India. Her work has appeared in The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t

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