Sexual violence is used by those in dominant positions as a weapon to assert power and reinforce existing caste hierarchies. Dalit women and girls are often subjected to severe forms of sexual violence, such as gang rapes, or rape and murder. There is often a collective nature to these crimes, with offenders from dominant castes acting in groups to commit crimes.

Dalit women’s bodies have been projected as markers of their Dalit identity, and sexual violence is a tool for subordination of Dalit women. This use of power and dominance flows into the criminal justice system, where impunity is rampant among the very stakeholders duty-bound to provide justice – police, judiciary, and medical functionaries.

These are some of the grim facts underlined in a latest report ‘Caste Based Sexual Violence and State Impunity’. Brought out by National Council of Women Leaders (NCWL), Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network (DHRDN) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has focused on 50 case studies, across 13 states. The states are: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

The report demonstrates how caste-based sexual violence becomes a tool to deny Dalit women their rights to education and safe livelihoods, access to quality health care, access to food, water and shelter – and, most of all, a life of dignity and self-respect.

“The report comes at a time when the country is reeling from the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic losses induced by hurried lockdown measures imposed by the Government of India nationwide. As we move forward towards the un-lockdown, we look back to see how the nature, pattern and forms of violence against Dalit women has only increased despite lockdown measures,” stated the document.

It points out that almost 16% Dalits are in daily wage jobs that are precarious and insecure and many of these are Dalit women. “The pandemic has further worsened the crisis in Dalit women’s lives with job losses, and thereby loss of income. The context of poverty, landlessness and lack of economic assets exacerbates the vulnerability and insecurity of Dalit women, though this fact is usually ignored by the State and the media.

As Dalit families strive to access better resources and services, educate themselves and seek to move out of poverty, there is a backlash from the dominant caste groups.

Critical to the cases is the localized nature of sexual violence, wherein the victim and the perpetrator/s live in close proximity to each other. In almost all cases, there is sustained and long-term history of intimidation and threats issued to Dalit women, girls and their families by dominant caste men. Assertions and resistance by Dalit families culminate in the ultimate exercise of power through sexual violence by dominant caste men against women and girls of Dalit families,” it underlines.

Quoting National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of 2020, the report states that

around 10 Dalit women and girls are raped every day in the country. But it contends that ‘this is merely the tip of the iceberg’ as a large number of cases do not even reach the criminal justice system. Even “Those that do manage to move through the complex and Dalit women unfriendly police and judicial systems have low conviction rates. As soon as a case is reported the perpetrators and other dominant groups activate channels of influence within the system and subvert adequate evidence gathering. Often, intimidation tactics are employed to silence victims-survivors and their families, contributing to low conviction rates in rape cases.”

The report has dealt extensively on the most important aspects of the shortfalls in the Police system as well as the courts when it comes to handling such cases. It points out how, “caste-based attitudes and discrimination from the community, police, medical officials, prosecutors and judges all contribute towards impeding access to justice for Dalit women and girls.”

Lack of caste and gender diversity within the justice system

The failure to address these structural issues means that the progress in legal and procedural reforms has not always translated into a real impact. “The systemic casteism and patriarchy in India’s justice system is exacerbated by an acute lack of caste and gender diversity within the justice system. Nationally, on an average, only 10% of the police force is made up of women. Bihar and Himachal Pradesh have the highest ratio of female police officers (25.3% and 19.2% respectively). With respect to caste diversity, all states and union territories have a reserved quota in the police force for Scheduled Caste candidates. However, only eight states and UTs meet or exceed their SC constable quota. Of the thirteen states this report covers, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are doing the worst, having filled only 56% and 59% of reserved posts respectively,” the document states.

It underlines, “With respect to the judiciary, only 13% of judges in the High Courts across the country are women, while only 30% of judges in subordinate courts are women. Since Independence, there have been only six Dalit Judges appointed to the Supreme Court, with only one Dalit having held the office of Chief Justice thus far. Though no data is publicly available on the representation of Dalit Judges in High Courts and the lower judiciary, Parliamentary committees, commissions and high-level government officials have acknowledged that the issue of acute lack of caste diversity in the justice system needs to be immediately addressed.”

This lack of caste and gender diversity in the judicial system and the institutional and entrenched forms of casteism and patriarchy prevailing in the attitudes of justice system officials as well as in applicable procedures contribute to the effective denial of justice for Dalit victims-survivors of sexual violence.

Right from the difficulties faced by victims-survivors of sexual violence or their families in getting the police to file the First Information Report (FIR) in rape cases and often refusal to do so along with difficulties in getting cases registered under Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities Act have been documented.

“Failure to register an FIR under the appropriate sections of the Act is also punishable under the SC & ST (PoA) Act. However, implementation of these provisions leaves a lot to be desired,” states the report. Referring to the delay in registering of rape cases, it added that this “can have a severe impact on chances of a conviction because the medical examination is not usually conducted until the FIR has been filed. The delay in the examination reduces the possibility of obtaining physical evidence of the rape, and evidence against the perpetrator. Meanwhile, Indian courts continue to place a disproportionate reliance on medical evidence in rape cases.”

Police fail to take action

Another glaring finding was that in a number of cases, the police have also failed to take action when the victim was first reported missing (and her body was later found, after rape and murder); or when the victim-survivor reported harassment by the accused (which later escalated to rape). Then there is the issue of delays in police investigation.

The authors have underlined, “The delays in investigation as noted in the findings from the cases for this report is also reflected in nation-wide data from the NCRB. At the end of 2020, the pendency percentage in cases of rape against Dalit women and girls was 25.5%. This means that more than one-fourth of reported cases were pending police investigation at the end of 2020, despite the two-month limit to complete the investigation and file the charge sheet.”

The victims also face the problem of police closing the cases as ‘false’, often due to pressure on the victims-survivors to enter into extra-legal settlements or ‘compromises’.

While stating that the survivors and families of victims report a lack of gender and caste sensitivity on part of police officials, the report points out, “In cases when girls went missing, police officials have sometimes made sexist remarks and assumed that the girl had eloped, and failed to investigate the case.”

The battle does not end here as many of the survivors highlighted to the investigating team that they were not provided with a copy of the medical examination report. In cases involving murder, the family of the victim was often not provided with a copy of the post-mortem report. “The lack of access to medical reports means rape survivors are often blindsided during trial, particularly if the medical examination report notes that rape could not be proven. There are also reports of doctors untrained on court processes performing medical examinations and being unable to provide accurate evidence during trial.

Additionally, survivors and women human rights defenders (WHRDs), in some cases, believe that the medical, forensic, and post-mortem reports are manipulated by state authorities to show lack of evidence of rape,” it has been inferred.

On the long delays in the trial process, the report quotes NCRB data to show 1, 59,660 cases of rape are pending trial at the end of 2020. The pendency for cases of rape against Dalit women and girls (cases pending before courts at the end of the year) was 96.3%.

Referring to the conviction rate, the NCRB data puts the number of convictions in the cases in which the trial was completed for rape cases against Dalit women and girls in 2020 at 42.5%. This is an improvement over the 32.2% conviction rate recorded in 2019, and in fact 2020 saw the highest conviction rate for cases of rape against Dalit women and girls in five years.

Talking to this reporter Manjula Pradeep of NCWL said, “a proper mechanism has to be put in place to address the issues. Special police stations for the community have been recommended but there is a sheer lack of political will on his front. This would also reduce the burden on the police officials in general police stations. In addition to this the women police personnel dealing with such cases need to be sensitised and properly trained. Their coming from the community will certainly help.”

She underlined that the judicial set up too needs to be changed, “the appointments of public prosecutors need to be credible and more women judges, preferably from the community will certainly help instil more confidence among the victims. The norms pertaining to in-camera trials should be properly followed.”

Need to recognise Dalit women as a distinct social group

The report has listed a set of recommendations for the authorities at the state and central levels. There is an emphasis on recognising Dalit women as a distinct social group rather than subsuming them under the category of general women or Dalits, and accordingly develop and implement activities with a specific focus on Dalit women’s rights.

Another important suggestion is to reconstitute all protection mechanisms and monitoring committees for Dalits, with mandatory representation from Dalit and women’s movements, as well as non-governmental organizations working with the community; enable these committees to monitor the registration of cases of atrocities under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, with 2015 amendments and the subsequent conduct of State and non-State actors vis-à-vis Dalit women victims-survivors, to prevent threats or pressure from perpetrators of violence and their communities on victims or survivors to withdraw or compromise police cases.

The report calls for ensuring that women and girls who report violence are protected from retaliation by the accused and their supporters, and from the perpetration of renewed violence against them through social boycotts and imposition of restrictions, including through the effective implementation of Victim and Witness Protection schemes.

There is a call for Fast-track effective investigation and trial of all cases of sexual violence and ensuring that judgments in these cases are pronounced within four months from the date of reporting the atrocities in accordance with applicable law. And emphasis is laid on sensitising the police and administration on this issue.

Dalit women continue to face atrocities for claiming their rights'- The New  Indian Express