A spate of exceptionally brutal rapes in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh has shocked India. Many of the victims were young girls. The BBC’s Geeta Pandey reports from Lucknow.
For Sarika, 16, it was like any other day when she went out to the fields for her evening ablutions with her friend Chhaya.
It was a cold February evening and it was pitch dark. “I was feeling a little scared so I wanted to get back quickly,” she tells me.
On the way back, she says, she was attacked by Shivam and three other men from the village.
“Shivam grabbed my hand and asked me to marry him. I said: ‘No, how can I marry you? We live in the same village, you are like my brother.’ I kicked him and tried to run away.
“With the help of his friends, he dragged me to a secluded area and began to assault me with knives and axes. I was conscious for some time, but once they cut me on my head and neck, I fainted. When I became conscious, I was in hospital.”
Sarika shows me her injuries – a fist-size wound on her scalp, her jaw which has been sewn together, her right hand which had to be re-attached, her right earlobe from where big chunks are missing, and long scars on her arms.
Shivam has been arrested, but the others are still free. One told the BBC he had been wrongly accused.
A terrified Sarika and her family have abandoned their home and land in Fatehpur district’s Udrauli village to stay with relatives in another village nearly 45km (30 miles) away.
The assault on Sarika is one among the hundreds of rapes and attempted rapes this year in the state.
“It’s a very difficult situation here,” says Roop Rekha Verma of Sajhi Duniya (Shared World), a Lucknow-based organisation which works with women.
“There is a lot of violence: Crimes are escalating; gender problems are increasing; girls are being attacked, both in rural and urban areas,” she says.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state with 200 million people. It is also home to a staggering number of poor – official statistics show more than 60 million people here live on less than $1.25 (75p) a day.
Poverty also makes a community more vulnerable. Many victims were raped or assaulted when they went to the fields because, like millions of Indians, they have no access to toilets at home.
Uttar Pradesh has always had a high rate of crime, but it is the viciousness of the recent attacks that has stunned people most.
“These cases are so brutal that we wouldn’t have believed that they could happen – we thought such things could happen only in novels and films,” Mrs Verma says.
SR Darapuri, vice-president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Uttar Pradesh, says most of the rape victims are poor women and girls in remote villages. Many, he says, are low-caste Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”).
“I analysed the rape figures for 2007 and I found that 90% of victims were Dalits and 85% of Dalit rape victims were underage girls,” he says.
“It is well known that until not very long ago, in certain areas of the state’s southern Bundelkhand region, new brides of Dalit farmhands had to sleep with their rich, high-caste landowners on their wedding night.”
Mr Darapuri says the practice no longer exists – but Dalit women and girls remain vulnerable to predators.
Even though Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Kumari Mayawati, is a Dalit woman and caste discrimination has long been outlawed, campaigners say the state’s largely patriarchal society still uses feudal structures to ensure that women remain marginalised and oppressed.
Campaigners say another common theme in these rape cases is that most of the attackers are people with money and often political influence too.
The recent rape cases – and press coverage – have put the state administration under pressure. The timing is crucial – state elections are due in a few months.
Earlier this year, Rahul Gandhi, an MP for the Congress Party which is in opposition in Uttar Pradesh, visited Sarika and her family and vowed to get them justice.
Last week, he visited the family of 14-year-old girl Sonam, who was allegedly raped and murdered by the police inside a police station.
Party leaders say crimes against women will be a major issue in the polls.
“There’s a huge crisis of confidence: The general perception is that women are most insecure here,” state Congress leader Rita Bahuguna Joshi told the BBC.
Mrs Joshi is appalled that Ms Mayawati has not visited any of the victims or their families. “She should have gone to some of the places where these crimes took place. She should have visited the victims. The least a woman leader can do is express genuine sympathy.”
Mrs Joshi says “at the moment, Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst places to be a woman”.
Her claim is borne out by official statistics. According to National Crime Records Bureau figures for 2009, 1,759 women were raped in the state. That is almost five rapes a day.
Officials, however, say that is not bad for a population of 200 million.
“We are the largest state in terms of population, but if you take the percentage of rapes, we are number 28th in the country,” Inspector General of Police GP Sharma told the BBC, stressing that the incidence of rape in the state was very low.
The statement has incensed activists.
They say statistics do not reveal the real picture and only a tiny fraction of the crimes are reported and registered. In traditional Indian society, virginity before marriage is cherished and rape carries great stigma.
“In society, there are taboos about making a complaint, a woman going to a police station, about a woman talking about her rape,” Mrs Verma says.
Mr Darapuri, who is a retired police officer, says the police also keep the figures down.
“The police do not want to register cases because they have been told by their political bosses to keep the crime figures low.”
For every case that gets registered, he says, at least nine go unrecorded.
“The official statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau are just the tip of the iceberg. I get daily calls about atrocities, including rapes, and in a majority of cases, police do not register them.”
Mr Sharma admits that under-reporting of crime is a problem, but insists the government is working to address it.
“We have taken up the issue of training of policemen, we are working on their gender sensitisation so that they are more responsive to women. The state has 200,000 policemen; we have started new recruitment to double their numbers.”
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Mayawati has announced a month-long campaign focusing on crimes against women.
She has promised swifter convictions in rape cases and says she will tour the state in August to reassure women they are safe under her rule.
But Sarika says Ms Mayawati’s words mean little to her until all her attackers are caught and punished.
“I want them to be caught. The way they have ruined my life, I want their lives ruined as well.
“I want the death penalty for them so that people realise what will happen to them if they commit a similar crime. People should be made afraid. Otherwise, they will do what was done to me.”