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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.