INDIA – Dalit women’s rights activists in the National Council of Women Leaders (NCWL) are voicing serious concerns about how India is failing to meet its legal and moral obligations to protect Dalit women and girls from sexual violence. The NCWL is calling for urgent action and is releasing recommendations to India’s government on how to tackle gender-based violence and intersectional discrimination experienced by Dalit women and girls.
The appalling gang-rape and murder of a nine-year-old Dalit girl in Delhi at the beginning of August, followed days later by the rape of a six-year-old Dalit girl in the same city, have sparked outrage and caste-based sexual violence has again been thrust into the spotlight. These latest high profile cases represent just the tip of the iceberg, with the National Family Health Survey-4 (2016) finding that women from Scheduled Tribes and Castes face the highest levels of sexual violence in India.
The NCWL is a new coalition uniting women leaders from marginalised communities who are working at the grassroots to support and empower Dalit, Muslim and Adivasi women and girls. In collaboration with Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network (DHRD-Net), Equality Labs, and Equality Now, the NCWL has been running a national campaign to focus public attention on how Dalit women and girls are subjected to sexual violence and harassment stemming from severe, pervasive and intersectional discrimination tied to their sex, gender, caste and class.
NCWL has analysed 70 caste-based rape cases from 15 Indian states, and 12 landmark cases from 1985 to now. The research reveals deep-rooted, longstanding patterns of Dalit women and girls being oppressed with sexual violence, including more extreme forms such as gang rape, or rape with murder. Perpetrators in dominant positions are using rape as a weapon to assert power and reinforce caste and gender hierarchies.
Survivors and victims’ families frequently encounter multiple barriers that prevent them from accessing justice. Common obstructions demonstrate the systemic nature of discrimination Dalit communities experience within India’s criminal justice system and wider society.
In interviews with the NCWL, Dalit women’s rights activists discussed numerous challenges they are confronted with when advocating for justice in sexual violence crimes. Manjula Pradeep, a Dalit activist and founding member of the NCWL, says: “The recent brutal rape and murder cases of young Dalit girls point towards the impunity and power that dominant caste perpetrators have in an inherently casteist society. Survivors and families of victims generally face a huge struggle to obtain justice within India’s legal system.”
A report by Equality Now and Swabhiman Society, Justice Denied: Sexual Violence and Intersectional Discrimination, identified systemic impediments preventing Dalit women and girls in the state of Haryana from receiving justice. This includes police regularly refusing to register cases, declaring cases false, or coercing survivors into accepting out-of-court settlements. NCWL’s research has found these problems across the country.
Perpetrators know they are far less likely to be punished if they commit violations against Dalit community members because crimes are rarely investigated or prosecuted. For the small proportion of sexual violence assaults that India’s criminal court system does prosecute, conviction rates remain abysmally low.
The NCWL’s recommendations to India’s Central Government and State Governments outline steps duty-bearers should take to protect Dalit women and girls from sexual violence and provide justice and support to survivors, and include:
- Incorporate and effectively implement the abolition of caste-based discrimination and patriarchy in national-level law and policy;
- Recognise Dalit women as a distinct social group; develop and implement policies specifically focused on advancing their rights, wellbeing, equal standing, and protection within the law;
- Produce and disseminate disaggregated data on the status of Dalit women, particularly in government plans and development programmes; address intersectional forms of discrimination throughout the criminal justice system;
- Ensure full and strict implementation of existing legal protections, particularly the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and the timely investigation and disposal of cases of violence against Dalit women and girls;
- Organise, support and fund community-based education, legal literacy and training programmes that improve understanding of intersectional discrimination and violence, including combating casteist and sexist stereotypes amongst criminal justice system officials; empower Dalit communities to better understand their legal and constitutional rights;
- Recognise that economic dependence is a significant reason behind Dalit women not filing police complaints; deliver a national plan with separate funding aimed at accelerating efforts to reduce the poverty gap between Dalit communities and the general population;
- Ensure Dalit survivors who report sexual violence are legally protected by the state from retaliation by the accused; prevent further violence targeting them, such as through social boycotts, and impose restrictions on these;
- Provide Dalit survivors and family members with immediate and longer-term assistance including medical aid, free legal aid, psycho-social support services and counselling, and quality, holistic rehabilitation.