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When Violence Is Used To ‘Teach A Lesson’: A Day In The Life Of A Dalit-Adivasi Woman

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This post is a part of JaatiNahiAdhikaar, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more.

Trigger warning: Rape, murder and violence.

What is it like to be a woman in Indian society? Well, in my experience, it is a struggle because, on daily basis, I come across heinous crimes that take place towards other women, children and men. Rape and violence towards women, children and oppressed sections have become a toxic culture in India. Our society has normalised this unsafe environment. This goes on to the extent of accepting rape jokes, casual sexism, acceptance of toxic masculinity, victim-blaming, and violent acts against women.

The Nirbhaya case was still fresh in our memories when India witnessed another heinous crime that took place in Hathras and Kathua.

The alleged gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman by four Thakur men was a shock to the whole nation. A woman said caste-based sexual atrocities were common in the village.“We don’t let our daughters walk around alone,” said a Dalit woman. “Normally, the Thakurs don’t even touch us,” she said, referring to the age-old practice of untouchability, “but to rape, they take our daughters,” the woman mentioned.

The caste skew that drives this caste-based sexual violence against Dalit women is not a new culture in several parts of India.

The caste-based hierarchy system in India in many ways contributes to this culture where individuals belonging to the deprived section of the society face caste-based sexual violence as an act of oppression. In detailed interviews with rape survivors and Dalit activists across five western, central and eastern districts of the Uttar Pradesh-Hathras, Shravasti, Unnao, Jaunpur and Lucknow. It was also found that state-wide public programmes to ensure the safety and rights of women-projects, shelters, helplines-have become defunct over the last few years, neglected, drained of funds or simply shut down.

Acts such as stalking, molestation, sending unsolicited photographs of genitalia contribute to the degradation of woman. Such acts are normalised by the society by sayings like “Most women at some point in their life become a victim of such acts.”

Looking at this through the lens of intersectionality we can say that gender-based violence is as an instrument of oppression or a means of ‘teaching a lesson’.

Photo: Feminism in India

However, this is not a lone incident that has shaken up the country. Several incidences like Nirbhaya rape case (2012), Unnao rape case (2017), Kathua rape case (2018) and the Hyderabad rape-murder case (2019) expose the grim reality of bestial sexual crimes against women in the country. A survey by the Thomas Reuters Foundation in 2018 ranked India as the most dangerous country for women.

In the Annual Crime in India Report 2019 published by the National Crimes Records Bureau, crime against Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribe has been recorded an increase of over 7% and 26% respectively in the year 2019. Crime against women hs steadily been rising over the years. The NCRB 2019 states that 4 lakh crime-based cases were reported against women which means 88 rape cases per day. Experts say this is nearly just 10% of the crime and violence women experience. Many of the worse cases go totally unreported.

In the Kathua rape case, where a nomadic minor 8-year girl was kidnapped on January 10, 2018, and allegedly gang-raped in captivity in a small village temple in Kathua district after being kept sedated for four days. Her mutilated body was found in a forest on January 17. The question here is what did a little girl do to deserve this level of torture? Or what did any individual do, to go through such violence and humiliation? These cases of child and women abuse are gross and traumatic and literally show that even in this new era women, children and oppressed are not at all safe and are prone to such outrageous acts.

This breach of bodily dignity and violence creates a long-lasting phycological and physical impact on the survivors which cannot and should not be neglected by the justice system and society. Such grievous violence must be handled on a quick, efficient and professional basis with empathy to provide justice to the aggrieved.

When talking about this caste-based issue, I really cannot forget to mention the Payal Tadvi and Rohit Vemula case which depicts the deeply rooted casteist society that we live in which is being represented by leaders, a few of who still live in another era and fail to understand the energy and ambitions of the youth. A major section of youth demands human rights and dignity and want to feel accepted.

The system of oppression continues to fail the deprived class repeatedly. The poverty rate in India is 21.9% which is grossly understated. Among the lower castes, 81% of the STs, 66% of the SCs, and 58% of the OBCs live under the poverty line. On the other hand, the poverty level among the rest of the population is 33%. The lack of representation and lack of important resources such as education, food security and health care, continues to increase the gap between the privileged and the deprived.

A voice of a Dalit and Adivasi is usually silenced over savarnas in each and every field including governance, justice or this so-called progressive society!

Talking about justice, most often in caste-based violence, the system completely chooses to ignore the caste angle or sometimes even the bodily violence itself.

In most cases, blame-shifting is also seen as in Dr Tadvi’s case her “capacity” to deal with academic pressure was questioned. The lawyers then promptly moved ahead to argue that her “unstable mental health” and the alleged “marital discord” were the “real cause” for her death. This despite the college’s anti-ragging committee finding evidence that Tadvi was subjected to “extreme harassment” by three defendants.

Well, we as humans ignore that caste-based discrimination is very much a thing and it can completely affect a person’s self-worth. Sheetal Kamble, a PhD scholar from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, mentions the case of Khairlanji massacre. A woman, her college-going daughter and three sons were publicly tortured and murder. The media, and the caste society, assassinated the character of the women. Whether the deceased woman had a romantic relationship outside her marriage or not was the primary focus of every discussion. The perpetrators and the police leaked baseless stories about their “faulty characters and the media readily lapped it up,” Kamble points out. The focus, she says, was shifted from the criminals to the characters of the victims.

In India, there are no laws made towards hate crimes in general but there we do have Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act). Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for past so many years have been humiliated and have faced crime violence by the upper caste, and this represents an extreme form of prejudice and discrimination.

Across the world, we find upper caste individuals humiliating another individual based on caste identity in the form of rape, abuse by police personnel, harassment, illegal land encroachments, forced evictions and so on. After the Nirbhaya case, the government may have taken measures but no increase has been seen in conviction rates. As the NCRB data of 2018 shows, only 25.5% of cases end in conviction.

Human Rights Watch reported that “Dalit women exist at the lowest end of gender’s class, caste hierarchies, and therefore upper caste men have used sexual violence as a tool against Dalit women as a means to inflict “political lessons and crush dissent and labour movements within Dalit communities”.

I can say that we as a society, have failed to address this issue, we have failed to provide women, children and the deprived section of a safe environment and fair justice. We as a society forget to unlearn toxic things which are passed down through generations.

When we look into empowerment, especially of Dalit-Advisai females, the historical experiences of Dalit communities particularly in the context of education are based on deprivation and oppression. They were traditionally denied access to learning due to their so-called polluted and lowest status in the Indian caste system. Education is an important input for human resources development and it plays a key role in empowering women in general and Dalit women in particular. It is a very powerful instrument for the emancipation of Dalit women. It not only improves prospects for economic development but also promotes self-confidence and helps in capacity building to meet the challenges that the changing socio-economic scenario poses. 

The education of Dalit girls is a serious issue as they are often doubly disadvantaged, due to both their social status and their gender.

Gender equity is a major concern, as the drop-out rate is higher among them at the elementary level. Dalit girls are particularly disadvantaged because family and social roles often do not prioritise their education. Early marriage and poverty lead to large scale drop-out in the 5-10-year-old and 16-20-year-old age groups, interrupting the completion of girls education. However, this is not the only reason that Dalit girls drop-out.

Memories of humiliation can also play an important role in the decision to leave, albeit a less visible one (National Commission on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 1998). There is also a feeling that reservation of seats and preferential treatment benefit Dalit students, but the empirical reality is quite different. It has been seen in various studies that there is a minimum enrolment of Dalit girls. This lack of empowerment through education and basic rights deprives the Dalit-Adivasi females to live a life that they deserve and also makes them prone to caste-based violence.

In most caste-based crimes, we see failures in the filing, investigating, and pursual of cases that empowers potential perpetrators by signalling that crime against lower castes will go unpunished. It further disempowers marginalized communities by eroding their trust in the legal system. Moreover, a regular occurrence of such crimes may lead to secondary victimization i.e., it creates a sense of vulnerability and anxiety not just for the victim but also for the wider community.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Jaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writer’s Training Program. Head here to know more about the program and to apply for an upcoming batch!

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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