In India at the moment, there is a group of feminists who are risking their lives to do a very risky job. It is to support victims of sexual assault and abuse.
Rekha, a 24-year-old activist, said their work included secretly searching for evidence in the village where the victim lived, in order to help them reconstruct the case and bring everything to light.
“Surely there is fear,” – Rekha exclaims. “The culprit also lives in the village or nearby.” However, working in a team can help them handle it.
All members of the group belong to Dalit – the community considered to be at the bottom of the Indian social stratification structure. People in this class are forced all the way, from career to marriage right from the moment they are born. Among them, the most notable is the risk of rape and sexual abuse against Dalit women and girls.
This story became a hot issue of society after the case of a 9-year-old girl was gang raped and then murdered in the capital Delhi last August. The perpetrators were four men – including a Hindu priest. All have been prosecuted, but no final sentences have been issued.
Scary “rape” history
In 2012, there was a scandal that shocked the world when a schoolgirl was gang-raped and murdered on a bus in Delhi. At the time, there were about 25,000 recorded rapes in India, with 1576 targeting Dalit women.
Victims of the incident that shook the world in 2012
Since then, the number of rapes each year has increased. In 2019, 32,000 cases were reported, of which the number of Dalit cases doubled – to 3486. But the problem is that reporting rape in India is very difficult – especially for the Dalit community. That is, the actual number could be much higher than that.
Anoushka said she was gang raped in 2012 – when she was 15 years old. That was also the year rape and murder on a bus caused outrage around the world, leading to stricter anti-rape regulations. But almost 10 years have passed, and no justice has been done to Anoushka.
The 23-year-old recalls herself being attacked by a group of higher-class men who had land, money, power and connections to politicians. She said the men asked her to drop the lawsuit, and asserted that they bribed the officials handling her case.
A 2020 report from the NGO Equality Now shows that the higher classes often apply sexual violence against Dalit women and children, who have few voices and are vulnerable to the law. rejected because of class culture. Another report from Human Rights Watch in 2017 also mentions many cases of low-class groups giving up because of pressure from above.
Anoushka shared, the perpetrators were acquitted, returned to live in a nearby village and continuously threatened her. Five years ago, she filed a lawsuit in the state supreme court, but nothing changed.
“Every time I go through a sexual violence case, I find myself there. It’s heartbreaking, because nothing has changed since then.”
“Until every woman is safe in this country, no one is truly safe.”
Anoushka later joined the feminist group Dalit Women Fight (DWF), a group dedicated to supporting victims of sexual assault. Every day, a team of volunteers from five major Indian states will contact the victims, asking permission to visit, possibly overnight. They will often escort the victim to report to the police, go to the hospital to collect enough evidence in court. This support is necessary, because most police will not take their case seriously, because they are Dalit.
In fact, although Indian law forbids discrimination between classes, law enforcement – particularly the police – often look down on Dalit women. This was acknowledged by the former Superintendent of Uttar Pradesh Police Department, Mr. Vikram Singh.
However, according to Riya Singh – who rarely dares to reveal his name in the DWF, things are gradually changing with the intervention of NGOs. However, she said there is still a very long way to go before there is absolute equality between Dalit women and the higher classes.
More danger from disease
The Covid-19 pandemic has created greater challenges for DWF. The Dalits are marginalized, do not have access to medical care, and are even blamed for spreading disease. And indeed, the work they have to do is mostly essential manual work – meaning higher risk than the average person, and less protection.
During the pandemic, atrocities against Dalit women have also increased, according to Riya Singh. Even more difficult is reporting to the police. Although there are no official figures, many activists believe that attacks on the Dalit community have increased during the epidemic period. As a report from the Human Rights for Dalit campaign argues, “social distancing has increased class distinctions.”
“All resources are focused on Covid, which means there is very little support for victims,” – Singh said. “Public transport is closed, we can’t reach the victims from afar, and we have to operate by phone.”
“But the technology itself has its problems. We are Dalit, and not everyone has a phone or a gadget. Fortunately, the victims also learn more about technology and get acquainted. with the new normal.”
The attitude of society is not the only thing they have to face, but the attitude within the Dalit community as well.
“To this day, I still have to deal with a negative attitude from my father,” – Anoushka, member of the DWF, and a former rape victim. “Every time there is an argument, my rape is brought up, ridiculed, blamed, even from the neighbors.”
Mohini Bala (31 years old), one of the leading members of DWF in Delhi. She lost her mother at the age of 6 and was raised by her father and grandfather. She said she was so scared that she didn’t dare open her mouth in front of him and her father, even if it was just to ask to buy something very small. Even in the Dalit community, women are much more despised.
In Dalit villages, schools are not always available. But parents always refuse to send their children to school far away for fear of being sexually assaulted. Bala himself dropped out of school because he refused to follow the rules that forced Dalit students to sit on the ground.
The oppression that Dalit women suffer – according to Bala – comes from denying the living spaces they are allowed to access. “We can’t leave the house, we can’t go to school, we can’t leave the house at night. It creates the notion that if a woman goes out and something happens, it’s her fault,” she said. – she commented.
At the DWF, Bala sometimes gets questions from neighbors and relatives about how she and her team still work late into the night – something that is considered “despicable” to Indian women. For Dala, this is a class and gender discrimination that women have to endure, which has yet to be changed.