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Dalit Women Speak Out: The movement to end caste based sexual violence across India

Indian women stand shoulder to shoulder arms outstretched and waving

Activists working at the intersections of gender and caste have long called for action to address the endemic sex and caste discrimination and violence faced by Dalit women. Monday 19th July marked the start of an online national campaign highlighting the issue of caste-based sexual violence across India. Equality Now is proud to be a part of this campaign to kick start much-needed conversations on this issue and call for action to end caste-based sexual violence, together with the newly formed National Council of Women LeadersEquality Labs, and Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network.

India is failing to protect Dalit women and girls from discrimination 

India’s constitution guarantees the right to non-discrimination on the basis of caste and sex, and Article 46 specifically protects Dalits from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. Despite this, the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2019 shows that 10 Dalit women and girls are raped every day across the country. However, rates of reporting remain low, and survey data from the National Family Health Survey actually shows that rates of sexual violence are highest against Adivasi and Dalit women, as compared to women and girls who are not marginalized based on tribe or caste respectively. 

Despite an increasing number of rape cases being reported every day, survivors of sexual violence, particularly those from marginalized communities, struggle to obtain justice within the Indian legal system.

Justice Denied: Sexual Violence & Intersectional Discrimination

Our 2020 report, Justice Denied: Sexual Violence & Intersectional Discrimination – Barriers to Accessing Justice for Dalit Women and Girls in Haryana, India, released together with Swabhiman Society, described the specific barriers faced by Dalit survivors of sexual violence and presents urgent recommendations to the Indian and Haryana State Governments for taking action to end caste-based sexual violence. The report, drawing from Swabhiman Society’s experience of working directly with Dalit survivors of sexual violence in Haryana over the past decade and highlights insights from 40 cases of sexual violence, found: 

  • Caste-based Sexual Violence: In 80% of cases against Dalit women and girls, the perpetrators were men from dominant castes.
  • Difficulty in obtaining convictions: The only cases in which convictions were obtained against all accused persons involved either rape and murder together, or were committed against very young girls (under the age of 6). It remains exceptionally difficult to obtain convictions in cases other than those deemed to be the most extreme violations.
  • Community role in impeding access to justice: Community and social pressure play a major role in impeding access to justice, in 57.5% of the cases, survivors were forced into compromises or extra-legal settlements. Unofficial village councils, known as khap panchayats, also attempted to interfere with the justice process in over 80% of the cases, by using their economic, social and political power to threaten, intimidate and coerce the survivor or her family into staying silent or refrain from pursuing the criminal case.
  • Lack of support services: Survivors find it extremely difficult to access support services, including those which are required to be provided by law, such as victim compensation, psycho-social care, and police protection, for various reasons including inaccessibility of services, caste-based discrimination, etc.
  • Intrusive medical examinations: The banned two-finger test, a traumatizing and unscientific vaginal examination, continues to be conducted as part of the medico-legal examination of rape survivors in many cases.

The Campaign to End Caste Based Sexual Violence 

Together with the newly formed National Council of Women Leaders, Equality Labs, and Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network, we are analyzing 70 case studies of sexual violence against Dalit women and girls from 15 states across India to examine the barriers to justice faced while accessing the criminal justice system. Over the next six weeks, we will be highlighting a number of these case studies under five themes to demonstrate the patterns which we’re seeing across the cases and the recommendations for improving access to justice for state institutions. 

We will also be interviewing Dalit activists working to end sexual violence from across India, highlighting the work they are doing to support survivors; and the challenges and backlash to their work which they are facing. 

Join the campaign 

Follow the National Council of Women Leaders and share the campaign with your networks.