By now it is all beginning to sound very familiar: A woman gang raped, her vital organs missing, stones and blades found in her stomach, other objects found in her anus and vagina and the doctor conducting the post mortem stating it was the most horrific case of his life. This case, however, has one additional parameter – the woman raped and killed was mentally challenged and being treated for her condition at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (PGIMS) in Rohtak, Haryana.

There is conflicting information on the mental condition of the woman raped and killed. While some reports state she was suffering mental retardation, others state her as condition as being psychiatric. Never mind that mental retardation is untreatable but the contradiction in reporting highlights a fact we all know – how widely misunderstood mental illness really is.

Mental illness is the most undertreated of all diseases around the world. There is an unspoken stigma around it and most sufferers usually do not want to talk about their “condition.” We have a difficult time grasping its severity and hence victims usually quietly suffer on their own until the situation often gets very serious. Many famous people have suffered mental illness and it has taken many of them years to come out and acknowledge their suffering. Few of them have fallen to their disease, the most notable recent case being that of Robin Williams who suffered from extreme depression. Other personalities who suffered mental illness include: Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of UK, Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, Beethoven, musical genius, Diana, Princess of Wales who suffered from bulimia, an eating disorder, and depression. Mental illness is the most unrecognized and, perhaps, one of the most damning diseases.

Violence against a mentally disabled woman is considered of the highest order because it now falls into two distinct subsets of gender based violence as well as violence against disabled. The sheer horror of the Rohtak crime makes it even more abhorrent. Of the nine men responsible, eight have confessed they took turns raping the woman and when she fell unconscious, hit her with bricks. The ninth, who was initially absconding, committed suicide by consuming poison. When questioned on the horrific nature of the crimes, one of the accused told police, “Pata nahi kya ho gya tha hamein. Dimag hi kam nahi kar rha tha. Jo hua wo nashe me hua or hota chala gaya. Bawle paani ne pagal kar dia, budhi bhrast ho gai thi saahab (We do not know what happened to us. We were not in our senses. We were drunk and the madness went on!).”

Assume for a second the men had not killed the woman, instead just raped her and let her go. Do you think she would have reported the crime to police all by herself? I think the chances of that happening are so slim, I’d write it off as a no.

In recent times the issue of women’s safety in India is at the forefront, especially in light of the Delhi gang rape, where a young woman was raped and killed in a similar fashion as Rohtak and the Uber taxi rape where a professional was raped by a cab driver. Women’s ability to stay out of the house at any time of day and travel wherever is widely debated with some saying how this is central to women’s security and others, shamelessly, indulging in victim blaming and drawing upon India’s “rich” culture to impose restrictions. Either way we look at it, we cannot deny its relevance but do we grasp the fact that disabled women need an extra layer of safety and protection afforded to them because they are less likely to report crimes and hold people responsible?

Even if a disabled person were to report the crime, most centers and counselors are not equipped to handle them and their special needs. Often their needs are overlooked and officers and counselors show general apathy and insensitivity to their vulnerability, causing a lack of viable statistics concerning the abuse and assault of disabled women in India.

This is a grassroots issue and needs to be addressed as such. Developing policies and setting up a framework for the protection of disabled women is important but education to transform attitudes and create a better understanding of the conditions of disabled women is equally necessary. It is important that counselors and police are trained to be sensitive and understand how to handle such situations in order to give voice to the disabled so crimes against them are reported accurately and punished.

I am not naïve and know that for India this is a long way to go. In a country where crimes against non-disabled women are yet to be given the importance they deserve, ignorance about the disabled makes crimes against them harder to prioritize and inconsequential. Several barriers need to be overcome to understand and perceive the ghastliness of these crimes but, perhaps, the Rohtak case is a precursor of things to look forward to.