Every month, Debangana boards a train from her remote village in eastern India and steels herself for another round of searing cross-examination by lawyers about the men who kidnapped, raped and sold her.
While the tragic killing of a student after she was gang-raped in Delhi has triggered an outpouring of angry protests and attracted global headlines, Debangana’s ordeal is an equally damning indictment of the fate of sex-attack victims in India.
“I hear about the Delhi rape case on the radio every day,” Debangana, who is now 16, told reporters in a telephone interview from her home in West Bengal after waiving her right to anonymity. “Only a rape victim can understand the grief of another rape victim. She died, but I have to live to fight on.”
On a summer’s day in 2010, Debangana, who chooses to go by one name, was working at her family store in the sleepy village of Sonarpur when two boys offered her an ice-cold soft drink — laced with sedatives.
She regained consciousness in a train compartment in the presence of three men. When they arrived at a Delhi station, the men frogmarched her to an apartment.
“They locked me in a room, forced me to stay silent by attacking me with shoes and sticks and then they raped me,” she said.
The 14-year-old was then sold to a brothel in the capital.
“Drivers, old men, poor men and some rich boys, they all exploited me for a year,” said Debangana, who was rescued along with 10 other girls by the police and a voluntary organization during a series of raids in the red-light district.
Debangana’s struggle was far from over. When she arrived home, she found no one supported her decision to file charges.
“In a city, a girl still has the freedom to decide, but in a village, she cannot make a decision against the wishes of a village head. A woman has to obey her father, brothers, village men,” she said. “Why would one man punish another man? But I registered a police case against my kidnappers, rapists and traffickers.”
It took the gang rape and murder of a woman in the capital to push the epidemic of sexual violence against women onto the front pages, but the real epicenter is in the villages.
Sonarpur, like thousands of Indian villages, is a tight-knit, mainly agrarian community, where family honor and the avoidance of shame are a matter of life and death.
Women are never given the freedom to voice their opinion. Men make decisions on their behalf, including the clothes they wear and whether they can go out.
Local police are often reluctant to pursue cases of sexual assault.
Last week, a teenager in the Punjab committed suicide after she was allegedly asked to drop her complaint in exchange for cash or by agreeing to marry one of her attackers.
However, Debangana wanted the world to know what happened. She says too many victims are either afraid or ashamed to speak out. Her fight for justice was supported by Shakti Vahini, a voluntary organization that provides her with legal aid.
“But the confidence and the commitment to fight is solely hers,” Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini said.
Kant, who has been conducting raids in red light districts of New Delhi for more than 12 years, said the city is a hub for sex trafficking, but despite the increase in sex attacks, the number of convictions has fallen.
A lack of female officers has been widely blamed for the failure of police to thoroughly investigate allegations of sex crimes. Women currently account for fewer than one in five Indian police officers.
Debangana was forced to record her statement — and the details of her abuse — before male officers.
Three of her alleged attackers were promptly arrested and charged, but two years later they are all out on bail. India’s notoriously slow justice system allows defense lawyers to spin the case out as it goes through the courts.
Her family’s home has been destroyed and their rice field torched after she refused to withdraw the case.
That defiant streak has enabled to her endure the humiliating questions in the packed courtroom, where she is asked to recall minute details of each assault.
“They once asked me how many times did I sleep with men? I replied: ‘I never slept with them, they raped me.’ A lawyer then asked how much money did I make at the brothel? I said: ‘The men just threw a few coins at my face, so they could hurt me more.’”
Asked if she believes she will ever get justice, she replied: “At least I’m trying.”