Across India, there are cultural expectations that married women should not work and that they should prioritize housework and care work. Photo: AFP / Raveendran

As India reels from widespread violence against women, females in the country’s lowest caste suffer the most. A conviction rate of only 25% in cases of offences against Dalit women means the problem for females of the lowest caste in Hindu society is only compounded by a weak accountability system.

“We face violence on the basis of both caste and gender. That is why the experience of violence by a Dalit woman is different from that of a non-Dalit woman,” said Shobhana Smriti, a state-level activist of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (henceforth, Adhikar Manch) in Uttar Pradesh.

Crimes against Dalits have risen by 746% in only a decade. Latest National Crime Records Bureau data shows that, while there were 2.4 crimes per 100,000 Dalits in 2006, the number has risen to 20.3 in 2016.  In 2014 alone, there was a 19% year-on-year increase in offences against Dalits, with a total of 47,064 crimes recorded.

The highest number of crimes against Scheduled Castes (the official name given to those belonging to the lowest castes) were assaults on women with the intent to outrage modesty; of 3,172 crimes recorded, 2,541 were cases of rape against Dalits.

The plight of Dalit women

In September last year, “Renuka” (not her real name), a 32-year-old Dalit woman from Bootharan village in Barmer district of Rajasthan, committed suicide. She left behind two young children and a husband who has since been emotionally unstable. In August 2017, she had woken up from sleep to find two men in her house. They forcibly took her to an isolated location and raped her. The two perpetrators were Renuka’s neighbors; her house was situated at the edge of their farm.

Her family’s attempts to register a case against the attackers were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, she was under continuous threat, and several of the witnesses in the case have also been attacked.

“It was in this context that (Renuka) committed suicide,” says Suman Dedathiya, a Rajasthan-based Dalit activist with the Adhikar Manch. It was only after Renuka’s family sat in protest with her corpse outside the police station that a rape case was even registered.

“We face violence from non-Dalit men, non-Dalit women, and Dalit men. Not having access to land, capital or education leaves us dependent on more powerful forces who take advantage of us,” said Dalit activist Shobana Smriti. Dalit women who are victims of such crimes have nowhere to turn to for support such as counseling.

Shobana is currently working on a rape case from Thahipur village in Pratapgarh district where a 15-year-old Dalit girl was raped by two men from the same village on July 17. The teenager had gone to a toilet in woods next to a farm when she was accosted by two young Muslim men. One of them then stripped her and the other raped her for the next one and a half hours. In this case, the police acted promptly and a first information report (FIR) was lodged. Despite this, arrests are yet to be made.

Rajasthan activist Dedathiya said: “Dalit girls walking to school in rural Rajasthan are teased in a way that non-Dalit girls aren’t. When a Dalit woman is elected as sarpanch (head of the village governing body), upper caste men expect her to go to their houses rather than them visiting her (as is the norm) as a way to maintain the hierarchy.”

The violence faced by such people on the lowest rung of the society is on an everyday level. “In June this year, a 32-year-old Dalit woman from the village of Ganeshpura in Bhimwada district was beaten by upper caste women for simply taking water from a village well,” Dedathiya said.

Perpetrators go scot-free

Shobana says that police more often than not refuse to even register cases of caste-related violence commited against Dalit women.

Asha Kotwal, the Adhikar Manch’s general secretary, said, “Caste status determines access to livelihood and dignity. There are layers of vulnerability attached to Dalit women. Their bodies have been seen as sites of caste assertion. The violence perpetrated against them is usually a public act of humiliation like tonsuring of hair or stripping and parading them in front of an entire village. Despite such public acts of humiliation, the perpetrators enjoy complete impunity. The women have no access to legal aid as they don’t have the money for it.”

Kotwal was one of a group of Dalit women who formed a collective that gave a presentation on caste-based gender violence against Dalit women at the 38th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva last month.

The conviction rate for crimes against Scheduled Castes is an abysmal 25.7%; conviction rates for cases of rape against Dalit women stand at 29%, according to the latest data available in the annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs for 2017-18.

The report presented by Kotwal at Geneva, ‘Voices Against Caste Impunity: Narratives of Dalit Women’, states that as per the latest National Family Health Survey, 33.2% of all women from the Scheduled Castes experience physical violence after the age of 15.

Kotwal’s report also states that “The number of cases registered is a fraction of the actual number of crimes that take place. In many instances, these crimes don’t get reported due to non-cooperative police and judicial machinery, shame and social stigma, and the fear of retaliation by the dominant caste groups.” Kotwal emphasizes that despite these circumstances, some of the strongest Dalit women’s rights activists are women who themselves are victims of violence.

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