Manisha Mashaal, founder of Swabhiman Society, is an inspiring and resilient voice fighting in the forefronts of the movement addressing caste based violence against Dalit women and girls in Haryana, India.
Swabhiman Society has provided paralegal support and legal aid to survivors of sexual violence from marginalized communities, and works against oppression and injustice towards Dalit, Muslim and trans women and girls in Haryana.
Swabhiman Society is partnering with Equality Now to call on the government to improve access to justice for Dalit women and girl survivors of sexual violence. A joint report is being released by Equality Now and Swabhiman Society documenting the barriers to accessing justice in some cases worked on by Swabhiman Society in Haryana.
Manisha began her activism in 2005, and in the years to come became a leading activist, questioning systemic discrimination and power structures.
What was your experience growing up and why did you decide to become an activist?
I come from a small village in Haryana, and belong to the Maha Dalit caste called the Valmiki community. My own experience of discrimination and exclusion led me to become an activist. While growing up, I was not aware of my caste until a couple of incidents that took place in school left a profound impact on me. I was in the third grade when I first faced discrimination at the hand of my professor because of my caste and was insulted in the presence of all the students. Despite that incident, I continued going to school, as pursuing my education was extremely important to me. However soon after a group of upper caste students verbally abused me by calling me derogatory names on the basis of my caste, such incidents continued even through my time in college.
While these incidents were deeply painful, even at that young age, something inside me compelled me to take a stand and raise my voice against the injustice before me. It brought a powerful realization in me that this was not an isolated experience of injustice and exclusion but one that was faced by many from my community, and I saw firsthand the struggles and hardships that came with raising a voice against it.
Living in my community, I witnessed the disadvantages Dalit women faced, with low socioeconomic status, the struggle in claiming space to put forth our demands and ask for our rights, and the barriers to safety and social security, which made us more vulnerable to violence. I, therefore, made a firm resolve that I would work towards raising awareness around caste based violence and exclusion and enable my community in our collective pursuit of justice.
I completed my education and became a lawyer. I have been an anti-caste activist since 2005 and by 2012, I had founded an organization called Swabhiman Society.
How is the organization supporting/enabling women and girls in Haryana?
Our work involves raising awareness amongst Dalit women and girls, viz a viz their rights and the laws and policies which are in place to enable them to access information and education, laws that protect them and help address violence in order to live a better quality of life with dignity and respect.
We also train Dalit women, to be self-reliant, empowered leaders within the community. In addition, we also provide support to sexual violence survivors in accessing the justice system as well as enable them to continue their education and access employment opportunities.
Swabhiman Society runs campaigns and movements to break the silence on caste-based violence, advocates with governments and builds political pressure to ensure that the justice system works better for the Dalit community.
Over the past 15 years, Swabhiman society has worked on and supported over 200 cases of sexual violence.
What is the biggest challenge you face in the system fighting for justice for these cases of sexual violence?
One of the biggest challenges in cases of sexual violence is that survivors or the families are pressured into compromises with the accused. Community and social pressure play a major role in impeding access to justice through pushing or forcing the survivor or her family into compromises or extra-legal settlements. However ever since we have started working closely with the survivors and providing them with the legal support and provisions they need for accessing the justice system, the number of cases of compromise have decreased significantly.
Another challenging factor is the lack of quality and effective systems in place to provide the survivors of violence and their families with immediate social, legal and mental health support along with proper and timely rehabilitation.
What is the role of caste in cases of sexual violence against Dalit women and girls?
The hegemonic power relations in society are the root cause for caste based violence, the economic power held by ‘upper-caste’ people and the dependence of Dalit people on upper-castes for livelihood makes them vulnerable to violence and therefore difficult to obtain justice. As a result of this dependence of livelihood, since most Dalit people work in schools, properties, business, or fields owned by “upper” caste people in Haryana, they tend to start viewing Dalit women and girls as their property, and assume a right to their bodies. They often view Dalit women as individuals who have no right to dignity and respect and therefore can be used and sexually assaulted.
How can a more enabling justice system be ensured? What role can civil society or media play?
Access to social media for Dalit women has been very impactful. Dalit women have now got a global platform to voice their experiences and raise awareness on the issue of caste based violence, this, in turn, has facilitated pressure on the mainstream media and the justice system to take up the cases of violence against Dalit women and girls seriously.
Mainstream media can play an instrumental role in building knowledge of the community around caste-based atrocities and violence. In particular, both the media and civil society can help raise awareness on the barriers of legal proceedings and the justice system and hold police officials accountable for carrying out their functions effectively and in a timely manner.
We often see cases in which the experiences of the victims and incidents of sexual assault are not taken seriously by the police, as well as the judicial system and victims, are often pressurized to withdraw the cases. It is vital that these ground realities are brought to the attention of our society, so that caste based violence is recognized, space is created for marginalized voices to be heard and collective action is taken towards ensuring justice to the survivors and their families as well as the Dalit community.
What can people do to contribute to positive change?
People can help with providing support and sharing resources with activists and organizations fighting on these issues so that the movement can grow and continue in a sustainable way.
Most importantly, people need to take ownership and responsibility to self sensitize and build their knowledge on caste based violence and discrimination, so that there is a much needed change in the mindsets of the general public and future generations can be brought up with an informed perspective.
Unfortunately, we see that many people talk about this issue, but few want to take serious steps and actions towards the same.
There is an urgent need for systemic reform to address caste based violence, every voice counts.