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Reforms fail to reassure Indians angry at child rape

Image caption Protests were held in Allahabad this week after the rape of a five-year old girl in Delhi

Indians are once again protesting, after a five-year-old girl was raped last week. The protests echo those that followed the fatal gang-rape of a Delhi student last year.

The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder examines why new legislation and heightened public awareness seem to be doing little to calm public fears.

Outside a two-room home in one of Delhi's poorer neighbourhoods, a little girl plays with her older sister.

She is only four - an age when playing should be fun.

But she was sexually abused at her playschool, allegedly by the owner's husband. And when her father went to the police to file a case, they put his child through a harrowing experience.

"They treated her like a criminal," he tells me.

"Three police officers, in uniform, took her inside a room and questioned her for hours, asking her to describe what happened."

It is an experience with which many sexual assault victims, particularly those from poor families, are familiar.

Initially the police refused to co-operate. But charges were eventually filed. Now, however, the accused is out on bail.

"We don't understand the law. It's been hard to find a lawyer to represent us," her father says. But he is determined to seek justice.

"I'll spend my entire salary if I have to. My wife and I are ready to sell our blood to raise money. I will not give up."

Image caption Student Hafsa Sayeed says she was given pepper spray for her birthday

As Indians are finding out, these are not isolated cases. In Delhi alone, a rape is reported every 18 hours. One out of three victims is a child. It is fuelling a sense of insecurity among many Indians, especially young women.

At Delhi university, students talk about their outrage and frustration.

"For my birthday this year, I was given a dagger and pepper spray," says Hafsa Sayeed, a student from Kashmir.

A new law has now been passed, bringing in harsher punishments for rapists in India, including the death penalty. The legislation also contains new penalties for stalking, groping and voyeurism.

But many agree that, although the laws have changed, attitudes have not.

"Rape doesn't happen in isolation," says Rafiul Rahman. "It has a lot to do with the culture that we are located in."

Another student, Shriya Singh, says that Indian society is still very male-dominated and that the law is the same. "You are constantly judged on the basis of what you wear, how you look, who you sleep with," she adds. "Unless attitudes change, the law will be ineffective."

That was starkly illustrated last week, during protests that followed the sexual assault of a five-year-old in Delhi. A police officer slapped a female protester in full public gaze. He has been suspended, as have other police officers who are accused of refusing to act, when the parents of the five-year-old approached them.

But opposition politician Brinda Karat says this is not enough. "There is a provision in the new law of a year's punishment for any police officer who does not do his job. Why is this not being implemented?"

The government's response has been to increase the police presence on the streets and reform the laws. But recent evidence suggests that is not necessarily making the country any safer for women, or for that matter, children.

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