Editor’s note: This story contains details of violence.
The brutal rape and death of a 19-year-old who belonged to the Dalit caste in India’s Uttar Pradesh state has sparked outrage and calls for justice across the country.
More than 300 protesters from the Bhim Army, an organization advocating for the rights of Dalit people (the lowest Indian caste), staged a demonstration at Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi where the woman’s body lay on Tuesday, according to Al Jazeera.
The young woman died two weeks after a group of men allegedly attacked her by dragging her from a field by her shawl while she was cutting grass in the Hathras district, sexually assaulting her, and torturing her on Sept. 14, according to the Guardian.
The woman’s family found her naked, bleeding, and paralyzed with a split tongue and broken spine. Authorities arrested four men, who were her neighbors and of higher caste, in connection to her death. One man had a history of harassing her family and members of the Dalit community, according to the women’s rights organization Equality Now.
Critics say the woman’s death was a result of the government’s inability to protect women, according to Al Jazeera. Uttar Pradesh ranks as the most unsafe state for women in India, and the state’s police register a rape every two hours. The actual number of rape cases in the state is likely much higher as many incidents go unreported, according to Equality Now.
The woman’s family claimed that the police did not take the case seriously until it received media attention, but Hathras authorities deny that they did not respond on time, according to the Guardian.
Local authorities in Hathras district released a statement ensuring they will take the case to fast-track court and investigate further, according to Al Jazeera.
Authorities often disregard sexual violence crimes against women in the Dalit community until a victim dies, and they receive citizen pressure to act, according to Equality Now South Asia Consultant Divya Srinivasan.
"Extreme cases of sexual violence and cruelty, such as what this victim was subjected to, attract widespread media coverage and outrage in India but nothing is being done to tackle the problem at the grassroots,” Srinivasan said in a statement released to Global Citizen.
Gender-based sexual violence and India’s discriminatory caste system are inextricably linked, Srinivasan explained. Dalit women and girls face various forms of oppression based on their gender, class, and caste.
A culture of impunity for rape and sexual assault, especially regarding cases involving Dalit women, is upheld in Uttar Pradesh, and crimes are rarely investigated or prosecuted, according to Srinivasan. Rape convictions “remain abysmally low,” she said.
"It is very common for Dalit women and girls to be subjected to sexual violations at the hands of men from dominant ‘upper’ castes seeking to assert their position and reinforce existing power structures,” Srinivasan added.
The Dalit woman is one of several recently reported sexual violence cases against women of lower castes in India, with abuses on the rise in Uttar Pradesh.
Srinivasan is urging the Indian government to protect women and hold perpetrators of violence against them accountable.
“We need a systemic overhaul of India's criminal justice system to ensure that immediate and appropriate action is taken against perpetrators, and victims get the justice and support they deserve,” she said.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) in the US or access 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org. You can find international resources here.