The All India Democratic Women's Association protests the death of two Dalit girls in Badaun. Photo: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images
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How India’s Dalit women are being empowered to fight endemic sexual violence

The conviction rate for rape cases by India’s “untouchable” women stands at 2 per cent, compared to 24 per cent for women in general. However, they are starting to fight back.

Today marks the second anniversary of the brutal gang-rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus. After the heat generated by it began to fade away, activists and commentators raised the unanswered and, in some ways, unanswerable question of why this particular case had set India alight when sexual violence against women, especially Dalit (the new term for Untouchable) women, is rampant. However, what it did do was open up a space and a consciousness which focused media attention on the issue, empowered more women to come forward, took away some of the shame that led to under-reporting and led to a raft of legal changes in rape legislation. It is doubtful whether the infamous Badaun case of the two Dalit girls who hung themselves after being raped by upper-caste men, the facts of which are now muddied by counterclaims, would have had the exposure in the Western media that it had without the interest generated by the Delhi case.

However, the conviction rate for rape cases brought by Dalit women stands at an appallingly low 2 per cent as compared to 24 per cent for women in general. One organisation, Jan Sahas (People’s Courage), which represents Dalit women who work mainly as manual scavengers (cleaning dry toilets with their bare hands) has bucked the trend by raising the conviction rate from 2 to 38 per cent. Their director, Ashif Shaikh, was in London recently to pick up an award from the Stars Foundation for liberating more than 14,000 women from scavenging. He spoke about the innovative methods used by his organisation to improve access to justice for raped women.

Jan Sahas set up its own network of 350 lawyers, the Progressive Lawyers Forum, to provide legal support in over 5000 cases of atrocity, which included nearly 1,000 cases of rape against mainly Dalit women across six states in 2013, to counter the corruption of the public prosecution system. Lawyers earn 150 rupees per case (£1.50), low even by Indian standards, a payment rate that attracts incompetent individuals who are infinitely susceptible to bribes of 10-15,000 rupees (£100-£150) offered by the generally upper-caste families of the accused to scupper the case.

Jan Sahas has also trained 200 female survivors of sexual violence as “barefoot lawyers” to support victims currently going through the criminal justice system. Many of them are illiterate and do not know their rights. They face tremendous pressure from family members not to pursue the case either because of the stigma attached to it or because the family has been paid off by the accused, pressure from the wider community/village, pressure from the accused and the police.

Shaikh explained the kinds of delays and frustrations faced by women who persist despite these pressures. Jan Sahas is trying to develop medical protocols in dealing with rape victims which are non-existent in most states. This results in women facing any of the following: the two-finger medical test to ascertain whether women are virgins as a way of discrediting rape accusations which was banned post the Delhi case but is still practiced in the regions; medics who do not want to get involved in a legal case will not examine a woman on their shift which sometimes leave them waiting for up to 40 hours, so weakening their medical case; or medical students are taught not to get involved in such cases because these women are likely to end up “accusing them of rape”.

Where the police are concerned, the litany includes: police disbelief of women’s claims; police rape of raped women because they are seen as “loose”; careless and erroneous police statements which will lead to the judge throwing out the case; bribes to quash the investigation; not lodging an FIR (First Information Report), an important first step in starting the legal process and investigation, and which is mandatory in allegations of rape. Instead the police will record it in their daily diary (rojnamcha) which has no legal status and distorts rape statistics but satisfies an illiterate woman that action is being taken. The transfer of a case from the rojnamcha to FIR status will only happen where pressure is being brought on the police.

That is where Jan Sahas steps in. They empower women through a three day training programme which includes role play in a mock courtroom to understand the legal process. When women are empowered in this way to become leaders and advocates for themselves and others, a model that Jan Sahas has borrowed from its campaign to liberate scavengers, it produces unprecedented results.

The untouchability of Dalits is so etched in Indian cultural attitudes that separate utensils are kept in caste-Hindu households for Dalits. Although rape is an act of violence, misogyny and male power, and although men everywhere can overcome other hatreds such as racism towards black women slaves, it is nonetheless staggering that men who fear defilement through less intimate forms of “touch” think nothing of flushing themselves into the bodies of Dalit women.

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US presidential debate: Hillary Clinton might have triumphed over Donald Trump but does it really matter?

The former secretary of state landed some solid blows on the tycoon but in the age of post-truth politics what matters more is how people feel.

There is a phrase that has become nearly ubiquitous, a sort of bitterly ironic catchphrase for journalists covering the 2016 presidential election in general – and Donald Trump in particular – and it is this: “lol nothing matters”.

Its glib boys-on-the-bus nihilism conceals a deeper truth. This campaign has degraded to the point at which truth and lies have become largely interchangeable. What is real matters less now than what people feel.

Hillary Clinton won most of the exchanges in the first presidential debate Monday night. The clash was at times oddly stilted, even boring; early skirmishers, the two opponents spent much of the first half of the debate warily circling, rather than engaging. The next debate will almost certainly make much better television.

But once she hit her stride the former secretary of state landed some solid blows on Trump over his preposterous pursuit of the “birther” conspiracy theory, and pressed him hard over his refusal to release his tax returns – something every presidential candidate for half a century has done – and his lie about not being able to do so while under an "audit". (No such prevention exists, of course, but: lol nothing matters.)

In the key part of that exchange, Clinton said: “So you’ve got to ask yourself, why won’t he release his tax returns? And I think there may be a couple of reasons. First, maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don’t know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks,” she said, in probably her best moment of the night.

“Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes,” she continued, pressing home her advantage.

At which point, Trump leaned into the microphone, not to object, but simply to petulantly interject: “That makes me smart.” Clinton had clearly got under his skin.

Not every Clinton line landed, mind. A particularly painful example: early in the debate, and then again later, she tried to coin the agonizingly cringeworthy phrase “Trumped-up trickle-down,” causing a collective wince from the Twitterati.

But many of the things Trump said were obvious, even lazy, lies. When Clinton took him to task for saying that climate change was “a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese”, Trump responded “I did not, I did not, I do not say that,” despite the fact that he hadn't even bothered to delete a tweet by him from 2012 saying literally just that. When Clinton said that Trump had at first supported the invasion of Iraq – which he did – he flatly denied it. 

At other times, he was simply incoherent or so infuriatingly vague as to be completely adrift from meaning.

It was telling, though, that Clinton called several times for “fact-checkers” to get on top of Trump's delusional ramblings and hold him accountable. CNN's post-debate poll gave the victory to Clinton, 62 percent to 27 percent – a rout. But CNN's audience skews Democratic by ten points. Clinton can call for fact-checkers as much as she likes, but only a fraction of a percentage of viewers, and only a minescule fraction of a fraction of Trump-leaning viewers, will probably ever seek out or even recognise that kind of fact-checking as legitimate.

So what happens next? The truth is we don't know at all. None of us know. It has become bleakly popular to say that we now live in a “post-truth” era, but in reality it is more that truth has become balkanized. Social media has made it possible for people to live in their own silo of separate truth.

Towards the end, Clinton channelled Fox News's Megyn Kelly, pressing Trump on his opinions towards women – quoting that he had called them “slobs” and “fat pigs”. To anyone for whom Trump's campaign is transparently ludicrous and misogynistic to the core – which is to say, pretty much my social and social media circle, and, let's face it, if you're reading this article, most likely yours as well – this was a win.

But that echo will only ring true to the political operatives, journalists, or people in our silo, who share a certain set of values.

This election is teaching us that we are no longer a representative sample. Trump – Donald Trump – after a two-year tidal wave of appalling bigotry, despite being a joke to you and to everyone you break bread with, went into Monday's debate with Hillary Clinton on Monday afternoon in a virtual tie. A virtual tie! Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton! Think, for a second, how off-piste that means we now are.

Where are most people now getting their information from? A bunch of places, all of them totally diffuse, much of it from what their friends, sociopolitical and geographic peer group share with them on social media. It's this catastrophic diffusion of truth which has brought us here. Some of the collapse of authoritative media was absolutely the media's fault. Some of it was due to technological and social changes that were out of anyone's control.

But it has led us to this place: where lol nothing matters.

 

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.