Dalit survivors of sexual violence get no justice

Dalit survivors of sexual violence get no justice

Dalit survivors of sexual violence get no justice

Mumbai, India – In February last year, Divya Pawar*, 35, left home after a dispute with her husband to visit her parents.

As she waited for a bus in rural Solapur in India’s western Maharashtra state, two dominant-caste men – one of whom was a police officer – stopped and offered her a ride.


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However, instead of taking her to her parents’ house, they abducted her and locked her in a tin shed on a farm belonging to one of the men. Out of earshot for miles around, over the next five days and four nights, the two men raped her.

Eventually, they called her husband and informed him she could be found at a hotel half an hour from his house.

Once home, Divya’s husband asked her to perform a “purity test”. The ritual involved pulling a five rupee coin out of a pot of boiling oil – a “pure” woman would be able to pull the coin out without burning herself, her husband assured her.

He recorded a video of her attempting to pull the coin out. Within days, the video went viral in the village via WhatsApp and an activist stepped in to help Divya register a First Information Report (FIR), the first of many steps to see justice served.

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Dalit survivors of sexual violence get no justice: ‘Targets of violence’

What happened with Divya is not unique. Sexual violence heavily impacts women and girls from India’s less privileged castes, mainly Dalits.

Dalits, previously known as the “untouchables”, fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy and have been facing discrimination and persecution by privileged caste groups for centuries, despite strict Indian laws to protect the community.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s latest data, there was a 45 percent increase in reported rapes of Dalit women between 2015 and 2020. The data said 10 rapes of Dalit women and girls were reported every day in India, on average.

According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-2016 (PDF), sexual violence rates were highest among women from Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi or Indigenous Indians) at 7.8 percent, followed by Scheduled Castes (Dalits) at 7.3 percent, and Otherwise Backward Castes (OBCs) at 5.4 percent. For comparison’s sake, the rate was 4.5 percent for women who were not marginalised by caste or tribe.

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However, these figures are “merely the tip of the iceberg”, according to a recent report by the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network (DHRDN), Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and the National Council of Women Leaders (NCWL).

The report, released in March this year, analyses access to justice by documenting the experiences of survivors of caste-based sexual violence in 13 Indian states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand.

“Caste atrocities are not just based on caste; they’re also based on caste and gender. It’s Dalit women’s bodies that become targets of violence. For the majority of Dalit girls, the extreme forms of violence they face is sexual violence,” lawyer and rights activist Manjula Pradeep, also the director of campaigns for NCWL and DHRDN, told Al Jazeera.

Indian law has special provisions for crimes perpetrated on people marginalised by caste and tribe under the Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act, including state support and special courts to streamline cases filed under the law.

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However, for cases to be tried under the law, survivors must first report these crimes to the police, following which an investigation occurs, and only then does the case go to trial. At each step, the report notes access to justice is limited for women from less privileged castes, especially in rural spaces.

India: Why justice eludes many Dalit survivors of sexual violence  Al Jazeera English

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