Editor's note: This post contains graphic language and details of violence.
An Indian court found six men guilty in connection with the brutal gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old on Monday.
Three of the men were convicted of the kidnap, rape, and murder of the young girl, whose mutilated, lifeless body was found in a forest in Indian-administered Kashmir on Jan. 17, 2018, a week after she had gone missing. The men were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Three police officers were convicted of destroying evidence of the crime and sentenced to five years in prison. Two more men were also charged in connection with the case. One has since been acquitted, while another, a minor believed to have lured the girl away, will be tried separately.
"It is extremely heartening that the Special Court in the Kathua rape and murder case has been able to deliver speedy and effective justice within a year of starting the trial,” Divya Srinivasan, a lawyer and South Asia consultant for nonprofit Equality Now, told Global Citizen.
The death of the child — who has not been identified by name in accordance with Indian law — shocked the nation, sparking mass protests last April after details from the police investigation of the case became public.
The child was kidnapped while tending to grazing horses in Kathua in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and taken to a nearby temple where she was held captive, drugged, and repeatedly raped over a five-day period, before she was strangled and beaten to death with a rock, CNN reported.
Sanji Ram, a retired government officer who served as caretaker of the temple at the time of the incident, is considered the “mastermind” behind the violent crime, which prosecutors say was intended to intimidate the nomadic Muslim Bakarwal group to which the girl belonged. Prosecutors say the group of Hindu men, which included Ram and his friend police officer Deepak Khajuria, targeted the 8-year-old in an effort to terrorize her community and ultimately drive them out of the area.
The horrific case stoked religious tensions in the country and captured both national and global attention.
"While we laud the verdict in the Kathua case, an effective response from the criminal justice system must not be reserved only for high-profile cases which have caught the attention of the media and public,” Srinivasan said.
Monday’s ruling by a special court in the state of Punjab is an encouraging sign of progress in India where sexual violence remains a major problem. Approximately 39,000 incidences of rape were reported in India in 2016, according to government data. And despite tens of thousands of rape cases pending trial, conviction rates are poor, remaining at around 25%.
“Unfortunately, a fair and swift trial in cases of sexual violence remains the exception, rather than the norm,” Srinivasan added.
“We hope this case will lead to the better implementation of existing laws, sexual violence cases handled with greater sensitivity, a more accountable police force, and bigger budgetary allocation by the state to end gender-based violence.”
India strengthened its rape laws to better protect girls and women in 2013 after the violent gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi led to widespread protests in 2012. Though these new laws have encouraged more people who have experienced sexual violence, including rape, to report these incidents, this has not translated to more just outcomes for survivors, according to Human Rights Watch.
And there is still great stigma attached to rape, even among law enforcement officials and medical professionals, that dissuades many survivors from filing reports or persisting with cases. But activists are hopeful that the convictions in this case will embolden other survivors to seek justice.
"The quick conviction in this case could potentially encourage other survivors of sexual violence to come forward and register their cases. However, the onus is now on the Indian government to ensure that the criminal justice system is responsive to survivors’ needs and is equipped to handle the high volume of sexual violence cases that are currently pending,” Srinivasan said.
“There is immediate, systemic change required in India’s criminal justice system to ensure speedy trials, day-to-day hearing of cases — as took place in the Kathua rape trial — and improvement in the conviction rates so that every survivor of sexual violence can obtain justice."
If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org. You can find international resources here.