BY GRAHAM PEEBLES
A suffocating patriarchal shadow hangs over the lives of women throughout India. From all sections, castes and classes of society, women are victim of its repressive, controlling effects. Those subjected to the heaviest burden of discrimination are from the Dalit or Scheduled Castes, known in less liberal democratic times as the ‘untouchables’. The name may have been banned but pervasive negative attitudes of mind remain, as do the extreme levels of abuse and servitude experienced by Dalit women. They experience multiple levels of discrimination and exploitation, much of which is barbaric, degrading, appallingly violent, and totally inhumane.
The divisive caste system – in operation throughout India – Old and ‘New’, together with inequitable gender attitudes, sits at the heart of the wide-ranging human rights abuses experienced by Dalit or ‘outcaste’ women. “Discriminatory and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of over 165 million people in India has been justified on the basis of caste” ( Human Rights Watch) : Caste refers to a traditional (Hindu) model of social stratification, which defines people by descent and occupation, it is “a system of graded inequality in which castes are arranged according to an ascending scale of reverence, and a descending scale of contempt … i.e. as you go up the caste system, the power and status of a caste group increases and as you go down the scale the degree of contempt for the caste increases, as these castes have no power, are of low status, and are regarded as dirty and polluting,” (United Nations Special rapporteur on violence against women – India visit 2013) – hence ‘untouchable’.
Despite, as Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights states, India’s “far-reaching constitutional guarantees and laws which prohibit caste-based discrimination,” Dalit women are the victims of a collision of deep-rooted gender and caste discrimination, resulting in wide- ranging exploitation. They are “oppressed by the broader Indian society, men from their own community and also their own husbands and male members in the family” (UN). Practices like the Devadasi system (where girls as young as 12 years of age are dedicated to the Hindu goddess Yellamma and sold into prostitution); honour killings; sexual abuse including rape; appalling working conditions; and limited access to basic services such as water, sanitation and employment are commonplace.
All women in India face discrimination and sexual intimidation, however the “human rights of Dalit women are violated in peculiar and extreme forms. Stripping, naked parading, caste abuses, pulling out nails and hair, sexual slavery & bondage are a few forms peculiar to Dalit women.” These women are living under a form of apartheid: discrimination and social exclusion is a major factor, denying access ” to common property resources like land, water and livelihood sources, (causing) exclusion from schools, places of worship, common dining, inter-caste marriages.” (UN)
The lower castes are segregated from other members of the community, prohibited from eating with ‘higher’ castes, from using village wells and ponds, entering village temples and higher caste houses, wearing sandals or even holding umbrellas in front of higher castes; they are forced to sit alone and use different crockery in restaurants, prohibited from cycling a bicycle inside their village and are made to bury their dead in a separate burial ground. They frequently face eviction from their land by higher ‘dominant’ castes, forcing them to live on the outskirts of villages often on barren land.
This plethora of prejudice amounts to apartheid, and it is time – long overdue – that the ‘democratic’ government of India enforced existing legislation and purged the country of the criminality of caste- and gender-based discrimination and exploitation.
Exploitation and Patriarchal Power
The power play of patriarchy saturates every area of Indian society and gives rise to a variety of discriminatory practices, from female infanticide, discrimination against girls and dowry related deaths. It is a major cause of exploitation and abuse of women, with a great deal of sexual violence being perpetrated by men in positions of power. These range from higher caste men violating lower caste women, specifically Dalits; policemen mistreating women from poor households; and military men abusing Dalit and Adivasi women in insurgency States, such as Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Manipur. Security personnel are protected by the widely criticized Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which grants impunity to police and members of the military carrying out criminal acts of rape and indeed murder; it was promulgated by the British in 1942 as an emergency measure, to suppress the Quit India Movement. It is an unjust law, which needs abolishing.
In December 2012, the heinous gang rape and mutilation of a 23 year-old paramedical student in New Delhi, who subsequently died from her injuries, garnered worldwide media attention, throwing a momentary spotlight on the dangers, oppression and appalling treatment women in India face every day. Rape is endemic in the country: “according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), registered rape cases increased by almost 900 percent over the last 40 years, to 24,206 incidents in 2011.” (Foreign Policy) With most cases of rape going unreported and many being dismissed by police, the true figure could be ten times this. The women most at risk of abuse are Dalits: the NCRB estimates that “more than four Dalit women are raped every day in India.” Excluded and largely ignored by Indian society a study from the United Nations reveals that “the majority of Dalit women report having faced one or more incidents of verbal abuse (62.4 per cent), physical assault (54.8 per cent), sexual harassment and assault (46.8 per cent), domestic violence (43.0 per cent) and rape (23.2 per cent).” They are subjected to “rape, molestation, kidnapping, abduction, homicide physical and mental torture, immoral traffic and sexual abuse.”
The UN found that large numbers were obstructed from seeking justice: in 17 per cent of instances of violence (including rape) victims were obstructed from reporting the crime by the police, in over 25 per cent of cases the community stopped women filing complaints, and in over 40 per cent, women “did not attempt to obtain legal or community remedies for the violence primarily out of fear of the perpetrators or social dishonour if (sexual) violence was revealed.” In only 1 per cent of recorded cases were perpetrators convicted. What “follows incidents of violence,” the UN found, is “a resounding silence.” The effect when it comes to Dalit women specifically, but not exclusively, “is the creation and maintenance of a culture of violence, silence and impunity.”
-to be concluded
-the writer is director of The Create Trust, running education and social development programmes, supporting fundamental social change and the human rights of individuals in acute need
-by arrangement with countercurrents.org