Dalit Women

Dalit women constitute a vast section of India’s population. They have been socially excluded and humiliated for a long period of time. Government through ‘Positive interventions’, ‘affirmative measures’ have consistently developed policies for their economic, social and political empowerment.

International reports note that discrimination begins early, and is evident in factors such as a mother’s access to healthcare and an infant’s access to adequate nutrition. This continues into the education system.

Dalit women are often raped or beaten as a reprisal against their male family members or relatives who are thought to have committed some kind of offense or offenses against any members of the upper caste. They are also subjected to violence in police custody so that the police officials could apprehend their family members.

  • Failure of policies:
    • The policies are inadequate to minimize the handicaps and disabilities of the past and in reducing the gaps between them and the rest of the Indian society.
    • Dalit women continue to suffer from a high degree of poverty, gender discrimination, caste discrimination and socioeconomic deprivation.
  • Violence:
    • Girls face violence at a younger age and at a higher rate than women of other castes. According to the National Family Health Survey by the age of 15, 33.2% scheduled caste women experience physical violence.
    • The figure is 19.7% for “other” category women.
    • The violence continues, largely due to a sense of impunity among dominant castes.
  • Political power does not help:
    • Even when Dalit women acquire political power, as when they are elected as sarpanches, there is often no protection against the social power that sanctions violence and discrimination against them.
    • In a village with a Dalit woman sarpanch, a Dalit woman was burned, but no action was taken.
  • Attitude of dominant castes:
    • There is a mind-set among the dominant castes that make them feel that they can do anything they want with dalit girls and that they will get away with it.
    • The discrimination faced by Dalit women at the cost of the Brahmanical obsession with “purity and pollution” has had a detrimental effect on all the dimensions of development.
    • Even today Dalit women along with their families are commonly clustered in segregated hamlets at the edge of a village or mohallas in one corner of the village, devoid of civic amenities, drinking water, health care, education, approach roads etc.
    • In urban areas their homesteads are largely found in slum bases normally located in very unhygienic surrounding.
    • The exploitation of them under the name of religious such as “Nude Worship,” practice of devdasi system and such other similar types of practices make them more submissive to violence, and discrimination.
    • The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women has noted that Dalit women face targeted violence, even rape and murder, by the state actors and powerful members of the dominant castes used to inflict political lessons and crush dissent within the community.
  • Cases withdrawn and lack of justice:
    • Very often cases are withdrawn and witnesses turn hostile because of pressure outside the system without adequate protection given to them.
    • Sanctioned impunity on behalf of offenders is a major issue in India, and the police often deny or purposefully neglect and delay Dalit women’s right to legal aid and justice. There is a consistent pattern of delay in report filing and irregularities regarding criminal procedures, which leads to widespread impunity and creates serious barriers to justice for Dalit women.
  • Workplace violence:
    • The risky workplaces compounded with a lack of labour rights protection measures render migrants dalit women more vulnerable to occupational injury.
    • Further, the emerging problem of sub-contracting short-termed labour makes it more difficult for them to claim compensation when they are injured at work places.
    • Dalit women are most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by employers, migration agents, corrupt bureaucrats and criminal gangs.
    • The enslavement trafficking also contributes to migration of large proportion of dalit women.

The horror of the gang rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras in 2020 is still fresh in our minds. Activists, academics and lawyers argued that the sexual violence took place on account of the woman’s gender and caste and that the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (PoA Act) must be invoked. Another case of sexual violence on a blind Dalit woman highlights caste based sexual atrocity.

  • Majority of educated Dalit women pursuing public sector jobs were only able to access temporary, low paid, work which lacked social security and labour rights.
  • Most of them were employed in typically female jobs, with 50% in New Delhi being employed as teachers in government schools, often below their own skill level.
  • In the private sector, liberalisation did result in increased employment for educated Dalit women. These women, over 70% of whom were between 20-30 years, and 80% of whom were single, had accessed education through the reservation policies.
  • They were improving their technical and computer skills to meet the needs of the business that had started, especially in the growing services sector, and working for sub-contractors of larger companies.
  • Some of the Dalit women employees did gain some respect from their families and communities, even if patriarchal norms continued their subordination to male authority within the household.
  • Sensible labour laws reforms to give exit options to Dalit women trapped in a system. Integrating social and cultural transformation with an economic alternative is critical.
  • Huge investments will be needed in up skilling and educating women and government needs to create an abundance of new jobs within the formal sector and lowering barriers to job creation.
  • Increased availability of stable-wage jobs for women is critical to preventing their socio-economic exploitation.
  • With bridging the deep-rooted biases through sustained reconditioning: -It is only possible by promoting the idea of gender equality and uprooting social ideology of male child preferability.
  • They should be given decision-making powers and due position in governance.
  • Thus, the Women Reservation Bill should be passed as soon as possible to increase the effective participation of women in the politics of India.
  • Bridging implementation gaps:
    • Government or community-based bodies must be set up to monitor the programs devised for the welfare of the society.
    • Dalit women need group and gender specific policies and programmes to address the issue of multiple deprivations.
    • Dalit women require comprehensive policies on health, especially on the maternal and child health
    • Make credit available by pooling the women to form self-help groups. The example of Kudumbashree model of Kerala can be emulated.
  • It matters, even if life imprisonment was given in this case, because the repeated setting aside of convictions under the PoA Act bolsters the allegations that the law is misused and amounts to the erasure of caste-based violence faced by women.
  • Further, as stated in the recent Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on Atrocities and Crimes against Women and Children, the “high acquittal rate motivates and boosts the confidence of dominant and powerful communities for continued perpetration”.
  • This judgment was a missed opportunity for the court to use intersectionality to uphold the conviction under the PoA Act or refer the matter to a larger bench if needed.
  • We need to stop hiding behind smokescreens of hyper-technicality of evidence and recognise caste-based violence against women when it stares us in the face.
  • Else, our caste discrimination laws will be rendered toothless.
  • If intersectionality theory mattered in this case, it should have influenced an interpretation of the PoA Act that reflects the lived experiences of women facing sexual violence.

Dalit women in India are situated at a very crucial juncture right now where they have to cross three thresholds simultaneously: class, class and patriarchy. These are the three hierarchical axes of social structure which are crucial to the understanding of gender relations and the oppression of Dalit women.