We all remember being shaken to the core by the heinous violence of a young girl’s gang rape in Delhi, which resulted in her death, and sparked a much needed international conversation about safety of women in an apparently “developing” India. The justified rage of thousands brought this issue to light, yet a huge chunk of the Indian population still waited to be included in the call for justice.
Protest at the India Gate after the Delhi gang rape of a young girl in 2014
Who makes up this huge chunk? It’s the Dalit women of India, who face the threefold consequences of caste, gender and class. Dalit is a self-identified term used by over 200 million people that are at the bottom of the hierarchy defined by the caste system in India. Dalits, who are labelled “untouchables” as per the caste system, are denied equal access to education, spiritual development and social mobility. Dalits in India essentially live in caste-based apartheid, with separate villages, places of worship, and even schools.
Despite laws that prohibit discrimination based on caste, India’s culture and society still very much operates based on the boundaries set by the caste system and strict gender roles. This highly patriarchal system makes Dalit women a primary target for violence. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, four Dalit women are raped every day, and the conviction rate for these cases is 2% as opposed to 25% in rape cases against women in general in India, which is a low number in itself.
More often than not, police and even court judges say statements like “How can you have been raped? You’re a Dalit--touching you would make anyone spiritually impure,” in cases where Dalit rape victims or their families try to file reports against dominant caste rapists.
Apart from facing sexual violence without any hope for justice, Dalit women are unfortunately also the main targets for trafficking and modern slavery. 98% of the people in India who are forced to do the dehumanizing work of removing human waste by hand are Dalit women. And many Dalit women are forced into prostitution just because of their status in the caste system; they are not even given a choice.
But despite not having the odds in their favor, Dalit women are banding together and fighting back. Dalit women movements are growing, in India and around the world. Organizations like International Dalit Solidarity Network, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, Dalit Women Fight, are creating networks internationally to increase awareness and advocate for change and implementation of policies that secure the safety of Dalit women in India, and hold perpetrators accountable despite their caste or class.
Asha Kotwal of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar March at a panel about rights of marginalized women organized by the Indian Women's Press Corps with Bollywood actress Nandita Daas and others.
The fight ahead for these women is not an easy one, as India’s culture is still quite defined by the caste system and patriarchal values. But it is a necessary fight, one that needs as much support as it can get, for a Dalit girl is India’s daughter, too, and she deserves the right to safety and justice, too.