Indian government has failed to protect Dalit women from caste-based sexual violence, says NCWL

The National Council of Women Leaders has released a series of recommendations for India’s government on tackling gender-based violence targeting Dalit women and girls. 

Voicing concerns about how India is failing to meet its legal and moral obligations to protect Dalit women and girls from sexual violence, the National Council of Women Leaders (NCWL) has released a series of recommendations for India’s government on tackling gender-based violence and intersectional discrimination experienced by Dalit women and girls. 

Though the National Family Health Survey-4 had revealed in 2016 that women from Scheduled Tribes and Castes face the highest levels of sexual violence in India, the appalling gang-rape and murder of a nine-year-old Dalit girl in Delhi this August, followed days later by the rape of a six-year-old Dalit girl in the same city, have brought the topic of caste-based sexual violence again into the spotlight.

September 14 also marks the one-year anniversary since a young Dalit woman was gang-raped and killed in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, and her body burnt by the police. The horrific case attracted widespread media attention and public outrage, but little has changed as a result.

Just last week, police registered a case against five persons on charge of gang-raping of a 15-year old Dalit girl in Belagavi, Karnataka. The attack happened in July but the family only recently came forward, saying they had been threatened by the accused to stay silent.

Manjula Pradeep, a Dalit activist and founding member of the NCWL, says: “The recent brutal rape and murder cases of young Dalit girls point towards the impunity and power that dominant caste perpetrators have in an inherently casteist society. Survivors and families of victims generally face a huge struggle to obtain justice within India’s legal system.”

The NCWL is a newly established coalition bringing together over 70 women leaders from across India who belong to a range of marginalised backgrounds and have been working at the grassroots to support and empower disadvantaged women and girls in their communities.

The group had been running a campaign throughout August 2021 in collaboration with Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network (DHRD-Net), Equality Labs, and Equality Now to raise awareness about how Dalit women and girls are being deliberately subjected to widespread cruelty and harassment.

Having analysed 70 caste-based rape cases from 15 Indian states, and 12 landmark cases from 1985 to now, they found that sexual violence, in particular, is being used by perpetrators from dominant castes and positions as a weapon to assert power and reinforce existing caste hierarchies. 

Previous research by Equality Now and Swabhiman Society has shown how Dalit women and girls are targeted with caste-based sexual violence in more aggravated forms – such as gang-rapes and rape with murder – and rarely receive justice. The research also found that there is often a collective nature to these crimes, with offenders from dominant castes acting in groups to commit offences.

Further, perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse know that they are less likely to face punishment if they commit a crime against members of the Dalit community because such attacks are rarely investigated or prosecuted. 

Police often refuse to register cases, coerce survivors into compromises, or declare false cases. For the small proportion of sexual violence crimes that India’s criminal court system does prosecute, the conviction rate in rape cases against Dalit women and girls is 32.2 percent, which is abysmally low, says Equality Now’s report. 

The NCWL’s recommendations to India’s central government and state governments outline steps duty-bearers should take to protect Dalit women and girls from sexual violence and provide justice and support to survivors. They include: 

●       Incorporate and effectively implement the abolition of caste-based discrimination and patriarchy in national-level law and policy; 

●       Recognise Dalit women as a distinct social group; develop and implement policies specifically focused on advancing their rights, wellbeing, equal standing, and protection within the law; 

●       Produce and disseminate disaggregated data on the status of Dalit women, particularly in government plans and development programmes; address intersectional forms of discrimination throughout the criminal justice system; 

●       Ensure full and strict implementation of existing legal protections, particularly the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and the timely investigation and disposal of cases of violence against Dalit women and girls; 

●       Organise, support and fund community-based education, legal literacy and training programmes that improve understanding of intersectional discrimination and violence, including combating casteist and sexist stereotypes amongst criminal justice system officials; empower Dalit communities to better understand their legal and constitutional rights; 

●       Recognise that economic dependence is a significant reason behind Dalit women not filing police complaints; deliver a national plan with separate funding aimed at accelerating efforts to reduce the poverty gap between Dalit communities and the general population; 

●       Ensure Dalit survivors who report sexual violence are legally protected by the state from retaliation by the accused; prevent further violence targeting them, such as through social boycotts, and impose restrictions on these; 

●       Provide Dalit survivors and family members with immediate and longer-term assistance including medical aid, free legal aid, psycho-social support services and counselling, and quality, holistic rehabilitation.

Access the complete recommendations in English and Hindi here.

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