One day, Reena* and Roshani* went to gather firewood along a dirt road by a field. Both in their twenties, Reena was six months pregnant and Roshani had recently married. The pair was accompanied by six other Dalit women and girls from their neighbourhood. While the group were collecting wood, they were confronted by two men from the Sikh community, one of whom was the landowner.
This story was shared by Equality Now and Swabhiman Society – an organization providing paralegal support, legal aid and other services to survivors of sexual violence from marginalized communities in Haryana – as part of the launch of their joint report, Justice Denied: Sexual Violence & Intersectional Discrimination – Barriers to Accessing Justice for Dalit Women and Girls in Haryana, India.
He began to molest a young girl with the group, grabbing and rubbing himself against her body. She shouted in protest and Reena, Roshani and the other women rushed to her aid.
The attacker called on his mobile phone for others to come and soon a gang of four men arrived with sticks and began to strike the women and girls. Some managed to escape and went in search of help but Reena and Roshani were trapped by their assailants. They were gang-raped by five men and beaten so severely that by the time help arrived, the women were unconscious.
Their ordeal continued in the hospital where medical staff subjected them to a traumatic, intrusive, and unnecessary medical examination known as the “two finger test”. It is an attempt to gauge the sexual history of a woman by determining how easy it is to insert two fingers into her vagina, probing the “laxity” of the vaginal muscles, and checking whether a hymen is present.
The procedure has been widely discredited for being unscientific and unethical, and in 2013 it was banned by India’s Supreme Court on the grounds that it is a violation of a woman’s right to privacy and dignity.
After the attack, Reena, Roshani and their families faced intimidation and threats of violence from the local Sikh community. The women were warned that if they persisted in pursuing a complaint against the perpetrators, who were from a dominant caste, they would be forced to leave the village. As the two families were not originally from the area, they did not receive assistance from others in their village.
The rapists and their supporters were able to get a local political leader to co-opt the doctor who was overseeing Reena and Roshani’s case. As a consequence of this corruption, the results of the DNA report from the gang-rape were interfered with and the DNA of the five men who’d been charged did not match the samples collected during the women’s medical examinations.
Reena gave birth to her baby but endured a difficult pregnancy and delivery due to complications arising from the violent attack she was subjected to, and her child still suffers from health problems.
Confronted with overwhelming opposition and struggling in poverty, Reena and Roshani were eventually forced into accepting money in an out-of-court settlement in exchange for withdrawing cooperation in the legal case. As a result, the case was dismissed by the trial court.
Reena and Roshani were unable to get the justice they deserved and their rapists went unpunished because members of the dominant caste were able to exploit their privileged social, economic and political position to prevent the legal case from progressing within India’s criminal justice system.
*Names have been changed