On September 14, 2020, 19-year-old Manisha Valmiki was raped in Uttar Pradesh, a northern state in India. She had her tongue cut, and spine broken during the attack, which was allegedly conducted by four men. Fifteen days later, she died of injuries. A week after that, another 22-year-old woman in India died en route to a hospital after her mother says she was brought home by a rickshaw-wallah driver and “thrown in front of our house” while she “could barely stand or speak.” She also appeared to have been raped; like Manisha, she lived in Uttar Pradesh, and belonged to the Dalit community, which is an Indian caste considered to be in the lowest position.
The following month, Manisha’s name appeared on protest signs across New Delhi, India’s capital city, and in other cities in across Uttar Pradesh. The hashtag #JusticeForManishaValmiki was trending on Twitter, and everyone from Bollywood celebrities to Indian cricket stars began speaking out. One common thread emerged: These attacks were not random occurrences: this was part of a violent epidemic, and one that deserved mass justice and attention.
“For the first time, it provoked outrage across the country and across the country about rape against Dalit women and girls,” Divya Srinivasansouth, the Asia consultant at Equality Now, told Refinery29, about the movement. “So many Dalit activists and groups were organising protests.”
These two attacks came a few months after four men were hanged for a 2012 gang rape and murder that came to be a worldwide symbol of the sexual assault crisis in India. While that case — in which the victim would come to be known as Nirbhaya, which means “brave” in Hindi — was a horrific and brutal example of sexual violence. Meanwhile, activists and members of the Dalit community in India have been speaking out against caste-based discrimination and assault for years, although their pleas for justice and change have largely gone ignored.
In India, women and girls from the Dalit community experience incredibly high rates of sexual violence. India’s caste system, which functions like a social hierarchy, imposes positionality at birth and has been in place for thousands of years. Dalits are at the bottom, outside the caste hierarchy, leading to discrimination at the intersections of caste, class, and gender. Even though the caste system was officially abolished in 1950, the structure is largely still in place and insidiously impacts the way Indian society operates.
Caste was initially assigned based on the work people did. There are four main categories which, in order of highest to lowest on the hierarchy, are Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (traders and merchants), and the Shudras (labourers). Dalits fall below those categories and are considered “untouchables.” Dalit people — along with Adivasis, indigenous tribal Indians who are also socially and economically marginalised — make up approximately 25 percent of India’s population. However, they are disproportionately impacted by gender-based violence and other forms of oppression. The coronavirus pandemic has only increased their marginalisation.
In their November 2020 report, Justice Denied: Sexual Violence & Intersectional Discrimination — Barriers to Accessing Justice for Dalit Women and Girls in Haryana, India, Equality Now and Swabhiman Society, a grassroots organisation led by Dalit women, found that violence, including rape and gang rape, are “systematically utilised as weapons by dominant castes to oppress Dalit women and girls and reinforce structural gender and caste hierarchies.”
Historian Uma Chakravarti coined the term “Brahmanical patriarchy” to describe the ways in which caste hierarchy is maintained through control of women’s sexuality, including in state-sanctioned ways like rape. “Brahmanical patriarchy” essentially refers to the way patriarchy works in societies that are organised by caste.
“In the Indian system, caste is gender and gender is often constructed by caste,” Kiruba Munusamy, an advocate on the Supreme Court Of India and Founder of Legal Initiative For Equality, said on Instagram Live with the Dalit Queer Project. “Traditionally, the caste system has operated for men, upper-caste men, Brahman and dominant-caste men, and women were considered people who would solve the men from the Brahman communities. If that was the case, the entire caste system was shaped and designed in a way that it benefits men and it does not benefit women in any manner.”
According to the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau, an average of 87 rape cases were reported every day in 2019 in India, an increase of 7 percent over the previous year, though most are thought to go unreported. The Justice Denied report found that 10 Dalit women and girls are raped every day. In 2018, a report from the Thomson Reuters Foundation declared that India was the most dangerous country for women, but Indian women — including the country’s National Commission for Women — rejected that finding.
Instead, they argued, the reason that the numbers of rapes and sexual assaults are going up is because more women are reporting them, not because more of them are happening. India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development told the BBC that using “an opinion poll to peg India as the most dangerous country for women is clearly an effort to malign the nation and draw attention away from real improvements seen in recent years.”
But even as more assaults are reported, perpetrators aren’t necessarily being held accountable. The Justice Denied report found that only 10 percent of sexual violence cases in which the victim was Dalit ended with a conviction of the perpetrator and in almost 90 percent of cases, at least one of the men accused of the violence was from a dominant caste.
“Because of the caste hierarchy that exists, perpetrators from dominant castes believe they have impunity or can get away with it when they rape Dalit girls because caste makes it harder to report the case and get a conviction,” Srinivasansouth says. The men were likely to act in groups, according to Srinivasansouth, and police often failed to even investigate the crimes, sometimes going so far as to pressure victims or families to drop the charges.
“One of the biggest challenges in cases of sexual violence is that survivors or the families are pressured into compromises with the accused. Community and social pressure plays a major role in impeding access to justice in such cases,” Manisha Mashaal, founder of Swabhiman Society, said. “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.”
It’s why Dalits are organising themselves and resisting, through groups like Dalit Women Fight, Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network, and Munusamy’s Mapping Caste Atrocities project. Their aim is to end caste-based discrimination and dismantle Brahmanical patriarchy and, in recent times, there has been a growing culture of resistance and organising by Dalit women.
“Dalit women and girls are getting aware about their rights, about the laws which are there to protect them,” Manjula Pradeep, Campaign Director at Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network and Founder of WAYVE Foundation, told Refinery29. “Many Dalit women who are survivors of sexual violence are transforming themselves as Human Rights Defenders. They are becoming lawyers and supporting other Dalit women and girls who have survived sexual violence to get protection, to access justice, and to live with dignity.”
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