Even as India reels from the news of the Hathras gang-rape this September, a chilling report produced by Swabhiman Society, a grassroots organisation led by Dalit women, in collaboration with international women's rights organisation Equality Now, has found conclusive evidence of how India’s justice system is failing survivors of caste-based sexual violence.
The report titled Justice Denied: Sexual Violence & Intersectional Discrimination - Barriers to Accessing Justice for Dalit Women and Girls in Haryana, India, examines 40 rape cases involving women and girls from the Dalit community in India's northern state of Haryana.
It finds that not only are these women and girls more vulnerable to heinous forms of sexual violence – such as gang-rape and murder – than women from other communities, they are also less likely to get justice due to systemic prejudice, patriarchy and corruption.
According to government data, around 10 Dalit women and girls are raped daily across India. However, the real figure is estimated to be far higher. "The stories featured in our report are horrific and heartbreaking, all the more so because of how the criminal justice system largely fails to act,” Jacqui Hunt, director of Equality Now’s Eurasia office, tells eShe.
“Perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse know they are far less likely to face punishment if they commit a crime against a Dalit woman or girl because attacks are rarely investigated or prosecuted and conviction rates remain abysmally low. Society, law enforcement, and India’s unofficial justice system of village councils, called panchayats, all conspire to obstruct justice and rally in support of men who stand accused, particularly if they are from a dominant caste.”
In over 80 percent of the cases in the study, all the accused persons involved in the case were from a dominant caste, and in over 90 percent of cases, at least one of the accused persons was from a dominant caste.
Perpetrators often acted in groups and attacks tended to incorporate more severe forms of sexual violence, including gang-rape and murder, when it came to Dalit women and girls. In 97 percent of cases in Haryana, the offender was known to the victim. The highest number of victims came from the age group of 13 to 17 years old.
Only 10 percent of cases examined ended with the successful conviction of all those charged, and this was just with particularly abhorrent crimes involving a victim who was murdered or under age six.
Out of the 40 cases in the study, 62.5 percent are gang-rape cases, which is significantly higher than the 11-12 percent of gang-rapes in rape cases involving all women and girls in Haryana. “The high percentage of gang-rapes indicates how sexual violence against Dalit women and girls takes the form of a collective exercise of power and authority by dominant caste members,” says the report, work on which began in March 2020.
Echoing the events of the Hathras gang-rape case – where the Uttar Pradesh police burned the victim’s body without her parents’ consent after she was reportedly gang-raped and murdered by four upper-caste men known to her – the report has also found that police frequently failed to record or investigate crimes when initially reported and were sometimes abusive or put pressure on survivors to drop cases.
“The horrific gang-rape and death of a young Dalit woman in Hathras in September once again demonstrates the close relationship between sexual violence and India’s discriminatory caste system. Extreme instances of sexual violence and cruelty, such as the Hathras victim was subjected to, draw extensive media coverage and outrage in India. Meanwhile, there is little indication that real action is taken to address the common impunity for such crimes, nor to achieve positive, systemic change that ensures prevention of sexual violence and caste-based discrimination, and gives survivors access to justice,” says Hunt.
Around 42 percent of rape cases in Haryana are dropped during the police investigation itself without charges being filed (compared with the national average of 15 percent rape cases being dropped), leaving the survivor with no access to justice through the courts. Further, “due to pressure from high-level politicians to clamp down on caste-based atrocities within the state, district-level authorities aim to bring down the number of rape cases registered under the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (POA) Act,” says the report. This puts Dalit victims in an even more precarious position, completely cut off from legal recourse.
Manisha Mashaal, who founded Swabhiman Society in 2012 to provide paralegal support and legal aid to survivors of sexual violence from marginalised communities, states: "One of the biggest challenges in cases of sexual violence is that survivors or the families are pressured into compromises with the accused. Another issue is the lack of quality and effective systems in place to provide the survivors of violence and their families with immediate social, legal and mental health support along with proper and timely rehabilitation."
Survivors in the study were not given adequate advice about their legal rights, and some did not receive compensation payments they were entitled to from the government. In fact, compensation was received by the rape victims only in seven out of the 37 cases in this study in which a police complaint had been filed, of which four were after either public outcry or court orders. Compensation was not received in 62 percent of the cases, while data is unknown for 18 percent of the cases.
Survivors, family members, and witnesses also faced threats, coercion, and bribery from perpetrators and members of the wider community seeking to stop prosecutions. In over 80 percent of the cases, village councils attempted to interfere with the justice process by using their economic, social and political power to threaten, intimidate and coerce survivors and family members. In almost 60 percent of cases, the survivor or her family was pressured into withdrawing from pursuing a legal case and had to accept a ‘compromise’ settlement outside the legal system.
“In one case, a Dalit woman was raped by three dominant caste men including the Sarpanch (head) of the village. When the survivor went to the police station to register a FIR, she was threatened with sexual and physical assault in the police station itself by the perpetrators, and the Sarpanch threatened to banish her from the village if she pursued the complaint,” says the report.
In 32.5 percent of the cases, the survivor and sometimes her family were forced to leave the village or neighbourhood due to the stigma surrounding the rape incident and/or community pressure.
Hunt calls on India’s government and criminal justice system “to take positive action to effectively address the epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence being inflicted on marginalised women and girls” in India.
Mashaal adds: “It is critical that the barriers to justice faced by Dalit women and girls at the ground level are brought to the attention of our society and government so that caste-based violence is recognised, space is created for Dalit voices to be heard, and collective action is taken towards ensuring justice to the survivors and their families.”First published in eShe magazine