By Anshul Tewari:
There’s a slim chance that you were not exposed to the brutal images of the two minor girls who were gang-raped and hangedÂ from a tree in a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district. The girls, cousins, were on their way to a nearby field, which the villagers used as a toilet due to the lack of one in their own village. “I always keep my girls’ safety in mind. I always accompany her and other girls in the family to the field. But that evening I had to help my husband in tending some animals so I let them go on their own. I asked them to be quick.”, told the mother of one of the girls to BBC’s Divya Arya.
The parents of the girls and the local villagers, belonging to a Dalit community, claimed that this was another case of rampant caste discrimination that they have to go through. When the parents reported the case to the police, the cops ridiculed them for their lower caste. When questioned by a journalist about rampant violence in the state, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav shot back, saying, “Aapko toh khatra nahin hua? (it’s not as if you faced any danger?)“.
A similar incident occurred in Bhagana village in Haryana, where on 23rd March, 2014, 3 minor girls belonging to a Dalit community were sedated and raped by a group of higher caste Jat men. The girls were on their way to the nearby fields to relieve themselves.
What these incidents, and many like these point towards is the high degree of caste discrimination and conflict in states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, and rape as a tool of oppression and power used by men from upper castes on women from lower castes. As Neha Dixit points out in her report in New York Times, “The tensions (between Dalits and Jats) manifested themselves through Dalit women remaining in Bhagana. Many girls were harassed at school and chose to stay home, including three of those who reported they had been raped in March.” The report also points at the long-going disturbance between the upper and the lower caste communities in Haryana and how violence on the lower caste is rampant there. Divya Arya’s interview with the local villagers in UP where the most recent case occurred points at the same.
Since ages, Dalits have been subject to discrimination in India by upper castes, who often harass, rape and even murder people from lower castes over disputes of property, land and often, just to prove a point and dominate power. The local police authorities often take side of the upper caste people, who are more influential and powerful. In the UP caseÂ as well, the girl’s father, who is a farm labourer, was harassed for his low-caste status when he approached the police. “The first thing I was asked was my caste. When I told them they started abusing me,” he told Divya Arya of BBC.
Uttar Pradesh and Haryana still remain divided on caste lines, and the political situation furthers the divide with every politician tapping to cash in votes. In the UPÂ case as well, all the main accused are from the influential Yadav upper caste, including the two constables who were suspended for inaction in this case, and for taking the side of the culprits.
Caste is not the only issue at hand here. In both these cases, the common thread lies in the fact that the girls had to defecate in the open and travel to a field away from their village to relieve themselves. Open defecation remains a rampant issue in India, with more mobile phones than toilets in Indian households. Women and girls face shame and a loss of personal dignity and safety risk if there is no toilet at home. They have to wait for the night to relieve themselves to avoid being seen by others, and even then, they are faced with harassment extremely often. Apart of being one of the biggest contribution to the deplorable sanitation conditions in India, lack of toilets also creates an unsafe environment for women and girls.
Over half of India’s more than a billion population does not have access to toilets, and the problem becomes much worse for rural women, specially during menstrual cycles. To top it all, poverty in these communities means that they cannot get toilets built at home.
India has had the dubious distinction of being known globally for its rape culture. A culture whose building has been formulated due to our deep rooted patriarchy and discrimination to a level now where rape has become a tool to showcase power and dominance over women, and over those of lower castes. The response of politicians and decision makers still remains abysmal on this issue. Addressing a rally in Moradabad in April, Mulayam Singh Yadav, father of UP Chief Akhilesh Yadav and premier of the Samajvadi Party had said, “Ladkiyan pehle dosti karti hain. Ladke-ladki mein matbhed ho jata hai. Matbhed hone key baad usey rape ka naam dey deti hain. Ladko sey galti ho jati hai. Kya rape case mein phansi di jayegi? (First, girls and boys become friends. Then, when differences occur between them, the girls accuse boys of rape. Boys may make mistakes, but should they be hanged for it?)”. His loathe-worthy comment points towards how little our leaders understand sexual violence and how their ignorance towards something so rampant and serious has taken over any possibility ofÂ a solution.
Gender rights activistsÂ note that such incidents are very common, and are often accompanied with attempts to intimidate witnesses, or family of the victims. Police often sides with the richer or more powerful, usually the perpetrator and tries to shun the case.
In 2012, the UPA led Government at the centerÂ became known to have badly handled the 16th DecemberÂ rape case, which also led to one of theÂ largest youth protests the country has ever seen. The peaceful protesters were incited, beaten and jailed for demanding justice for the horrifying rape case.
As protests broke out in Delhi and many other parts of the country, the lack of Government remains not only towards growing gender violence, but also towards the harmful gender discrimination that fuels violence and abuse as a form of creating dominance and asserting power. There is a pressing need to act on the appalling situation of sanitation for women, rampant caste divide and no safety for India’s women – unless we are competing for tragedy.
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