On June 16, after a hard day's work, L Liji, a 19-year-old salesgirl working in Varkala, a tourist hotspot in south Kerala, was on her way home. She sensed that a motorcycle-borne man was following her. The assailant later attacked her and, when she fought back, he got back on his bike and drove into her with it. Critically injured, she bled for many hours before she received medical help. Last Sunday, she died.
Liji is the latest in Kerala's long list of victims of sexual violence. Last year, the state was shaken up by the brutal manner which Soumya, a commuter on the Ernakulam-Shoranur passenger train, met her end. She was first pushed out of the speeding train, then, bleeding and broken, she was raped near the tracks. She died three days later.
Statistics show that the state has an incredibly high rate of crimes against women. According to the latest figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, Kerala's crime rate (number of crimes committed per 1 lakh population) against women is 27, higher than Delhi's 24.6, even though the latter is often called India's rape capital.
A study conducted by the Sakhi Women's Resource Centre in Thiruva-nanthapuram and Anweshi Women's Counselling Centre in Kozhikode shows that verbal abuse and lewd gestures are the most common forms of sexual harassment - 80% of respondents attest to that. Sixty percent of respondents reported physical harassment, 26% attested to being stalked, while 21% said they had been subjected to flashing by men.
"Emotional issues are never addressed here. Sex remains a taboo leading to frustration... the frustrated turn upon the weak," says Maala Parvathi, a psychologist and theatre personality. With the help of a leading Malayalam daily, she recently took a nightly stroll through the state capital. She later wrote about the demeaning catcalls, jeering, lewd comments, honking and straight invitations she experienced.
Says Prema John, an associate professor at Government College, Neduman-gad: "Society's attitude towards women needs to change. Even in educated households, a woman is destined to do domestic chores. Unless we achieve an equal footing, atrocities will continue."
The state is also the biggest market for pornography. G Rejitha, project co-coordinator at NGO Sakhi, says: "A healthy sense of sexuality is missing here. We need measures to overcome this. In sexual offence cases, the law is tardy and society often views victims as being worse than offenders."
PE Usha, a victim of sexual assault, recalls her bitter experience. "When you report an offence, the first reaction is, 'Why'? Society automatically assumes that the victim deserved it and was taught a lesson. The system is not woman-friendly at all."
In Kozhikode, an employee of University of Calicut says she was assaulted in a packed bus in 1991. She took the bus to a police station and got the offender arrested. Later, she faced a series of slanderous campaigns, eventually forcing her to shift to another department.
"For a victim, it's a double whammy. She has to face more at the hands of the system… so many suffer in silence," she says. "What we need is a speedy justice delivery system and deterrent punishment. Instead, nothing has changed in 13 years."