By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death of a schoolgirl three days after she was set on fire by a stalker in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has sparked outrage from activists who said the law was failing victims of unwanted advances from men.
In a statement to the police before she died, the 17-year-old said the man walked into her house in Villupuram on Monday, set himself on fire and hugged her, all the while saying that he would not let her live for spurning him.
"She said he had stalked her for over a year and she had said no repeatedly," police inspector Senthil Vinayakan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The man has been booked for a similar offense earlier and had even spent time in jail. But no one anticipated this and now they are both dead."
The incident comes a month after a software engineer was hacked to death in broad daylight at a train station in the port city of Chennai. The man arrested for her murder had been stalking her for months, police said.
"Women, especially young girls, are more at risk today," said U.Vasuki of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). "The fact that they have a right to reject just as a man has a right to propose seems to be becoming irrelevant."
Nearly four out of five women in India have faced public harassment ranging from staring, insults and wolf-whistling to being followed, groped or raped, said a recent survey by the charity ActionAid UK. [L3N18K2N8]
There were 337,922 reports of crimes against women such as rape, molestation, abduction and sexual offences in 2014, up nine percent from the previous year, according to the latest data from India's National Crime Records Bureau.
Protests after the fatal gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in December 2012 forced the government to enact stiffer penalties on gender crimes, which included criminalising stalking and voyeurism.
The amended law spelled out that sexual offences would include physical contact, advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures and a demand or request for sexual favours among other acts.
"But the law is failing to protect these young girls," Vasuki said, citing the case of a girl in Trichy stabbed inside her college campus for refusing the advances of a man earlier this year.
Similarly in March, in southern state of Andhra Pradesh, a teenage girl with 90 percent burns died just hours after she complained to the police about being stalked.
"Stalking is taken for granted in most cases, a sort of inconvenience that women are expected to put up with," said advocate Sudha Ramalingam.
"Though the new law has up to a five-year jail term for a repeat offender, not many families are encouraging their girls to file police complaints because of societal pressure and sometimes violent consequences."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)