Atrocities against Scheduled Caste Women: Notes from the Field
Over the last few years, international human rights activists have brought attention to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India, most prominently through efforts to place caste on the agenda of the UN World Conference Against Racism (Durban) in September 2001. One year after that landmark event, our team of three MPA students in Woodrow Wilson's graduate policy workshop Human Rights: From Grassroots Courage to International Influence investigated violence targeted at Scheduled Caste (SC) women. The main goal of our study was to examine the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1995 in relation to atrocities against SC women, an under-researched population. Under the rules of the SC/ST Act, any crime committed against an SC by a non-SC qualifies as an atrocity. Further, the Act establishes Special Courts and Special Prosecutors to specifically address atrocities, provides victim compensation from the government and contains provisions to punish public servants for neglecting proper implementation of the Act. However, the rights of SC women continue to be violated because the government (and society more broadly) fails to enforce the existing laws.
We began our research by examining studies of caste and gender discrimination and interviewing human rights activists in New York and New Jersey. They described the lack of power SC women have in relation to their highly hierarchical society -- they bear the triple burden of caste, class and gender. SC women are singularly positioned at the very bottom of Indian society. 2
We then traveled to Andhra Pradesh, a large state in south India, to work with a Dalit 3 rights NGO called SAKSHI Human Rights Watch A.P. With the help of an agricultural union, we interviewed numerous victims of atrocities and several justices, government officials and activists in Hyderabad and surrounding rural districts (Rangareddy, Mahbubnagar and Nalgonda). Women shared horrific stories with us, of being raped, beaten, tortured, or forced into prostitution, as well as the more 'mundane' stories of humiliation at the hands of people belonging to higher castes. We were overwhelmed by the discrimination and disadvantages they face on so many dimensions: lack of education, economic/employment disadvantages, social disempowerment, political invisibility and sexual oppression. Regarding the latter, domestic violence is also a large problem, but one that is not talked about as freely as discrimination and violence emanating from outside the community. Through many conversations we realized that the SC women we talked to had trouble even imagining their lives being led with the same dignity as a man of the same caste or as an upper caste woman. Their only reference for a better life was "backward" caste women who also worked as agricultural laborers, but without the stigma of untouchability.
Our investigations in India pointed toward two main factors that perpetuate atrocities against Scheduled Caste women:
1. Scheduled Caste women are intentionally victimized by upper castes because they lack the social position to stand up for their rights individually and because assaulting or raping them reinforces the subordination of the whole SC community to upper castes.
Victims, their families and other activists assert that the harm inflicted by a rape goes far beyond the physical and emotional trauma for the victim. Because rape diminishes a woman's purity - an important quality to maintain in these communities - rape also attacks men in their role as 'protector' of the purity of their sisters, wives and mothers. The end result is a situation where Dalit women are humiliated to be "used and thrown away," while Dalit men stand by powerless to do anything about it, a humiliation for them as well. In this way, men, women and their communities are injured by a rape, and intentionally subordinated by the perpetrators, according to the people who spoke to us. 4
2. Scheduled Caste women do not know their rights and are too powerless individually to hold the Judiciary and the Executive 5 accountable for enforcing protective laws.
Throughout our interviews we were told that the police and courts would only reluctantly help an SC woman who had been raped, if they helped at all. The victims and their families reported that the police and judges were generally from upper caste backgrounds and biased in favor of their own caste. A woman who was the victim of an atrocity often had nowhere to turn for help. If a woman and her family were determined and knowledgeable enough to get past the various hurdles to charge an attacker with a crime, they would often face a delay of two to three years before the trial took place, despite the existence of Special Courts. Over this time period, a victim's father or husband might succumb to community pressure to settle the case privately, often for a very small sum of money that is divided between the victim's family and the unofficial arbiters of the settlement. The woman who suffered a rape or other violent act has very little say in whether the official court case will be pursued, despite the state's duty to prosecute.
In order to change the climate for SC women, many difficult changes are needed. Systemic limitations, such as poor political will and a dearth of educated SC female activists, impede a vigorous and proper implementation of the SC/ST Act. Our recommendations were aimed at reducing atrocities in the short term, to complement the large body of existing work that points to increased education for the Scheduled Castes as the long-term answer. The recommendations concentrated on an extensive information campaign because most SCs we talked to (and almost all SC women) were not aware of the SC/ST Act's existence and the special protection it provides for them. Second, the powers of oversight must be restructured so that the SC communities, those most motivated to ensure that the police and judiciary work in their interest, are given real power to monitor officials. Third, supplementary rules to expedite rape cases and make the court a less hostile environment for SC women are needed. And finally, SC women are fighting for rights from two vantage points - women's rights and Dalit rights. Thus the Dalit rights movement must also make room for women to be activists and leaders.
|One of the biggest challenges in rural areas was getting to talk to SC women. If upper caste men were around, they dominated the conversation. If SC men were around, they talked rather than letting the women speak. In this photo, Caroline, our translator Leslie and I are trying to get some time alone with the women, so they could speak their minds. Finally the men agreed to leave for a while - and come back later to be interviewed themselves!
Photo: courtesy Joshua Chang.
In addition to our substantive findings, you may be interested in my personal observations of the best and worst aspects of the fieldwork. For me the most devastating outgrowth of untouchability we learned about is a system of institutionalized prostitution called jogini. It is officially banned, although not legally defined as an 'atrocity' punishable under the SC/ST POA Act. To briefly explain jogini, a scheduled caste family dedicates its young daughter to a village goddess, and when the girl reaches puberty she becomes an available sexual partner for all men in the village. The jogin's sexual partners are to become her patrons - as long as they want to be - and she never marries. These patrons are also to care for her parent(s), an expectation that can motivate a desperately poor single parent with only one daughter to dedicate the girl to this life. The jogins we talked to, however, were never well taken care of, particularly as their youth waned and they were no longer desirable sexual partners. They often had several children (with different fathers) for whom they could not properly care. Joginis we talked to had turned to begging for their daily survival.
These women's stories exposed a system that falsely convinces poor, caste-oppressed families that they can participate in religious life along with upper castes, interact with them and be taken care of economically. In fact, they are being exploited and their daughters robbed of their futures, freedom to marry, self-determination and control over their own bodies. A common expression quoted to describe the hypocrisy in this system is "untouchable by day, but touchable at night." This situation is particularly tragic from my point of view because these girls were thrown into it by their own parents, who were themselves poor, uneducated and desperate to avoid complete destitution.
While jogini was the 'worst' part of this field research, it also led us to a woman who was the 'best' part. An anti-jogini activist in Mahbubnagar who was a powerhouse of energy, ideas and fervor for her cause aided our jogini research. She had talked many jogins into quitting the system, amid outcries from their families and their village, which did not want to break with the 'tradition'. She even got one of them married! She also made passionate pleas to families who were on the verge of dedicating their daughters, often changing their minds. She was literally an inspiration amid an otherwise devastating circumstance. She reminded us of how policy and activism must work together and served as an example of how other women can emerge as Dalit leaders to overcome their 'triple burden'.
 Joshua Chang, Caroline Nguyen and I conducted this research study together, but this field note represents only my own opinions and reactions.
 For more information on this issue, the Human Rights Watch report BROKEN PEOPLE: Caste Violence Against India's "Untouchables" is the best place to start and can be accessed at http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india/ . Our report can be accessed at http://www.wws.princeton.edu/research/PWReports/wws591c_2.pdf .
 Dalit is a Hindi word meaning 'oppressed' and has been adopted by the SC/ST community as a positive moniker.
 Dalit activists and community members concerns are linked with international law and broader human rights agendas. Intentional subordination of an ethnic group through systematic sexual violence was recently identified by the international legal and human rights community as one form of crimes against humanity and barred under the Geneva Conventions. For more information about this, visit: UNHCR's website, and see Amnesty International's report
 For the purposes of our report, the Executive consists of the Social Welfare Department, which administers the SC/ST Act, and any entity within the Executive branch with the power to shape and monitor implementation of the Act.
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