India: Why justice eludes many Dalit survivors of sexual violence

While official data shows spike in sexual crimes against oppressed caste women, report says access to justice is limited, especially in rural areas.

Sexual violence against Dalits
Activists protest outside a special police station for registering caste-based atrocities following an incident in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India [Courtesy: Ganesh Khosle]

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.

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.

‘Targets of violence’

What happened with Divya is not unique. Crimes of a sexually violent nature disproportionately impact women and girls from India’s less privleged 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.

Sexual violence against Dalits
NCWL frequently hosts grassroots educational initiatives to educate women about their rights [Courtesy: Sandhya Devi]

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.

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.

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.

Victim shaming and social pressure

In Pawar’s case, her husband absconded – and remains so – but those accused of raping her were behind bars within six days.

But this was a rarity in cases where Dalit women have faced sexual assault at the hands of dominant-caste men. “This case might not have ever been successfully resolved were it not for the video,” said Prachi Salve, the research centre coordinator at Manuski, an NGO that works with grassroots activists and victims of caste-based crimes.

“Victim shaming is common in these cases, there’s a lot of pressure [on victims],”  said Salve. The victim shaming extends to the surrounding village, and, at times even the family members, she added.

This often means there will be no justice. Owing to their castes, said Salve, “these women are often farmers, labourers – they depend on [dominant] caste people for work.”

When pressure and threats – particularly in rural areas – are too much to bear, victims often leave home. “Two cases happened in Maharashtra recently where we were unable to trace the victims after being in constant contact with them initially,” said Salve.

Victim shaming when it comes to law enforcement, however, is especially troubling, Salve said. “When I interact with the police, they [often] say it was the victim’s fault.”

Sexual violence against Dalits
Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network members at Tisiauta police station in Bihar [Courtesy: Ranju Kumari]

In most cases, an FIR was registered only after the intervention of NGOs and activists, the report said. On average, according to the report, registering an FIR could take up to three months. Additionally, since medical examinations are carried out once an FIR is registered, these examinations often don’t provide adequate evidence for the case in a court of law.

Moreover, the FIRs don’t guarantee justice.

“The police don’t listen to the survivor,” said Sangharsh Apte, an assistant coordinator at Manuski. “They don’t write the story completely as described by the survivor and they don’t fill in the correct sections of the FIR.”

In 15 percent of the cases where survivors or families of victims were able to get an FIR registered, justice was stalled due to the police not including applicable provisions of the PoA Act.

As a result, grassroots activists and fact-finders from organisations such as Manuski become crucial in seeing such cases through to the courtroom. “[We] fill out applications for addition of sections in the FIR when these are missing,” said Apte.

Bharti Ghosh, a spokeswoman for India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party told Al Jazeera that justice in cases of sexual violence “must be delivered at the earliest as justice delayed is justice denied”.

“I am of the same opinion – whatever be the cause, it is the most grievous of offences and the offender must be punished in such a way that brings relief to the victim,” she said. “And when the law says equal opportunity for all, speedy justice must be there for all victims  of this horrendous offence.”

Hurdles in seeking justice

The PoA Act also requires investigations, including interviews with the victim, to be carried out on camera. “It’s a bit expensive, but they have budgetary provisions for it,” said Apte, but this “provision is often unknown to the investigating officers and the state machinery”.

Additionally, the DHRDN report found that the rules of the health ministry’s Medico-Legal Care Guidelines for Survivors or Victims of Sexual Violence were either poorly implemented or ignored altogether.

“At the time of medical [examinations] confidentiality doesn’t exist,” said Salve, adding that “reports are carried out in general wards mostly by male doctors” and “two-finger testing is still going on”.

The two-finger test is an intrusive unscientific examination used to detect a ruptured hymen. It was banned by India’s Supreme Court in 2013. Of the survivors included in the report, 22 percent reported having undergone a two-finger test following a rape.

Sexual violence against Dalits
A DHRD member interviews people in Bihar state’s Nawada district [Courtesy: Ranju Kumari]

The report notes that the distance to the court for survivors “creates an additional financial burden” for them and their families, adding that although the PoA Act requires that special courts be set up to try offences and “to provide travelling and maintenance expenses during the investigation and trial”, in practice these expenses are rarely provided to survivors, who are unaware of their rights.

“We talk about fast-track courts, but it doesn’t happen like that,” said Pradeep. “There is a trial that’s been going on for the last 21 years in Gujarat [in] a village called Pankhan […] she was asked to re-identify the accused, who had [gang-raped] her. Some of them have died.”

“Despite there being huge allocations under the implementation of PoA, we do not see basic infrastructure in place like special courts, speedy trials, legal aid etc,” activist and scholar Riya Singh, co-founder of Dalit Women Fight, an organisation that advocates for the rights of Dalit women, told Al Jazeera.

“For the past two years, an amount of 600 crores ($77.4m) has been sanctioned under the Strengthening of Machinery for Enforcement of Protection of Civil Rights Act,1995 and the Scheduled Castes-Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. We do not know where this money is going,” she said.

Last year, Dalit activists noted discrepancies between the allocated and prescribed budgets for the welfare of the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes.

*Name changed to protect the woman’s identity.

Source: Al Jazeera