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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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.