In December 2012, India was shaken by the brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman on her way home from seeing a film in Delhi. Her death incited grief, rage, substantial law reform, and inspired historic global solidarity. But the dignity of 'visibility' still seems to be accorded only to the lucky few.
In late May 2013, Reingamphi Awungshi, a young woman from the ethnically distinct Northeastern state of Manipur, was found dead in her Delhi apartment. Photographs taken by her relatives at the scene — the police refused — show apparent blunt force trauma to her head. Her nose and one eyelid were missing. One eye was partially gouged out. Gash and bite wounds were visible on her legs and feet. Semen was found at the scene.
After a superficial examination of the scene, the Delhi police concluded her death was a suicide by over-the-counter pain medication, and her injuries the result of posthumous interference by rats. The police arrived at this conclusion without any forensic evidence, without sealing the crime scene, before the coroner's report had been filed, and despite contradicting reports by multiple medical experts.
Reingamphi was just 22 years old, and had migrated from Manipur to work in Delhi. She had just moved to a new apartment with her cousin. She was described as “jovial” and worked hard in beauty therapy to send money back home to her family. But migrants from the Northeast are disproportionately subjected to racial and sexual violence in Delhi, and crimes committed against them are routinely dismissed by authorities, which virtually assures impunity for perpetrators.
Her family alleges that the landlord’s brother-in-law stalked, harassed and threatened her. Both men are politically connected, and had keys to her apartment. She had told family of her growing fear that his stalking would become more violent. She begged her roommate to return from the trip she had taken to Manipur, and eventually sought refuge with her family. She returned to her home after two nights and stayed in regular contact with her friends and family by phone, but was found dead four days later.
The Delhi Police have a disastrous record, especially in their treatment of female victims of violence. Reingamphi’s case was no exception; the Delhi police actively have ignored the evidence, disregarded statements provided by the family, provided false and misleading information about their rights, and turned them away each time they presented to petition for an actual case to be opened.
Her family and women’s groups have refused to let her death pass in silence. A desperate and sustained effort from the women’s activist community finally convinced police to take her death seriously.
“It took 300 of us, in the hot Delhi weather in May,” said women’s rights activist Binalakshmi Nepram in a passionate plea to the Indian press last week, describing the 27-hour long protest she and other activists organised in May this year. “[W]e refused to leave the police station, because the police were paid off … we told them we would not let them leave until they filed a report.”
The police eventually released post-mortem reports, which revealed the coroner had ruled out the possibility of rape after his “two finger test” found the hymen intact. This deeply insulting practice is outlawed in India, and represents the type of victim-blaming that imagines and contorts evidence to suggest a rape was consensual.
The family has taken the case to court, and at a hearing later this month they are hopeful the judge will turn the case over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, who they believe will not be swayed by the weight of local political players or corrupt officials.
Reingamphi’s case may have taken place in India, but is an illustration of how easily a life can be swept aside. In Australia, as in India and across the rest of the globe, women live under the constant threat of violence and are most vulnerable in their homes. Violence against women is most often perpetrated by persons known to the victim: fathers, uncles, neighbours, bosses. It breeds in private spaces, and depends on our acceptance that a fist thrown behind closed doors is a private matter.
So too does it prey on the intersecting forms of bias and discrimination deeply rooted in our societies. It preys on the beliefs that a prostitute deserved it; that an indigenous woman was weak for not defending herself against drunk brothers; and that the women who clean our houses, or migrate for work, are a little less deserving of our outrage.
These are the lives that are never deemed worthy of a news report. Reingamphi, as a woman and as an ethnic minority, was one such woman.
Women society values less become invisible, their deaths pass by unnoticed. For too many women, the justice system is no protection, but becomes a willing accomplice to crimes. India is taking steps out of the darkness, just as we are, and let us hope for both our nations that we do not leave the long-invisible women like Reingamphi behind.
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