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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war