As the United Nations Human Rights Council began its 38th session in Geneva from June 18, a coalition of Dalit women activists released a report at a side event there on Thursday on caste-based violence faced by women.

The report titled Voices Against Caste Impunity: Narratives of Dalit Women in India compiles accounts of witness, statistics and testimonies about the effects of caste-based violence in India, while recommending policy actions to end this. It is the first such presentation at the United Nations Human Rights Council by a Dalit women’s collective.

“We are challenging the [international non-governmental organisation] style reports, which often include not-so authentic data and remain as glossy reports and nothing more,” said Asha Kowtal, general secretary of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, who will be making a presentation at Geneva on Thursday. “This is a report that delves deeply into the lives of Dalit women activists, who are constantly engaging with the community and in particular, with survivors of violence.”

The testimony will be followed by responses from a panel of experts, including senior advocate Vrinda Grover and Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

As the United Nations special rapporteur for minorities, Iszák-Ndiaye had in 2016 submitted a report on caste discrimination in India. The Indian government had condemned the report on its release. In this, it followed its long-held precedent of not acknowledging caste discrimination at international forums.

The All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch tackles this head on. At the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001, activists had attempted to highlight caste issues, to vigorous protests from the Indian government, which said caste was an internal matter not to be equated with race. It has maintained this line ever since.

“Post the World Conference against Racism, Dalit women have always seized every opportunity to engage in dialogue and raise awareness about our specific issues,” said Ruth Manorama, national convenor for the National Federation of Dalit Women. “However, the blockading by India is severe.’’

The side event, said Kowtal, is an attempt by Dalit women to step up their efforts to demand state accountability by the United Nations.

“Dalit women are now seeking space for dialogue with Indian diplomats, which has been denied thus far,” Kowtal said. “Our objective is not to shame the country, but to enable us to collectively find a way to break through this terrible silencing of caste crimes, perhaps the most silenced human rights crisis of our times.”

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, author of the report and public health doctor and researcher from Karnataka, said that caste-based violence meets most criteria of human rights violations. “But the government either says it does not exist or that we will deal with it ourselves,” she said. “There is a lot of denial in terms of this violence existing which is made worse because things like harassment and discrimination are hard to prove.”

Structural violence

The report notes 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.

The report quotes Abhirami, an activist with the National Dalit Movement for Justice, talking of her work on a study on discrimination and violence in schools. One of their findings was that Dalit girls were “specifically given the duty of sweeping and cleaning”.

“If all caste girls are made to do these jobs, then we could call it gender discrimination,” the report quotes Abhirami as saying.

Girls face violence at a younger age and at a higher rate than women of other castes. According to the National Family Health Survey, as quoted in the report, 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.

“Suman says that 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. When girls walk through or work in isolated places, the men touch the girls wherever they want – ‘They feel that can even go to their houses, their rooms, their beds and that they need not have any fear and no action will be taken against them.’ Gayatri says that even those few girls or their families who consider complaining are targeted viciously. ‘They humiliate one girl and her family so much that it is like a lesson to other girls from the community to never complain.’”

— Voices Against Caste Impunity: Narratives of Dalit Women in India

Even when Dalit women acquire political power, as when they are elected as sarpanches, this is often no protection against the social power that sanctions violence and discrimination against them.

The report quotes Gayatri, a respondent from Madhya Pradesh, elaborating on the difficulties women sarpanches face, even if they understand the powers they have. “If she takes a stand against a murder or arson or attack on dalit people, she is targeted and harassed,” Gayatri said in the report. In a village with a Dalit woman sarpanch, a Dalit woman was burned, but no action was taken. The nephew of another sarpanch was beaten when she objected to an atrocity.

“She wants to do her job properly, but the dominant caste people have all the power and keep her in control,” the report quotes Gayatri as saying.

There are Dalit women working actively within and with the system to help Dalit women. One such person is Savita, a lawyer from Panipat in Haryana who is quoted extensively through the report. She points out that dominant caste men are not the only ones who practice caste discrimination.

“I don’t agree that non-Dalit and Dalit women are the same,” the report quotes Savita as saying. “Caste makes a difference. We have seen during trainings, if there is even one non-Dalit woman, she will not let the Dalit women speak. She will speak non-stop in English to prove that she is superior. We Dalit women tend to push our sisters to speak up, but non-Dalit women reinforce the weaknesses of Dalit women.”

Later in the report, she is quoted as urging more Dalit women to take up law.

“Outside the court, many people are fighting,” Savita said. “Of 100 cases, only 5 go to court. If there are good lawyers they will not allow compromise. We have to fight within the court as much as we have to fight outside.”

While the report includes statistics drawn from official sources, it is also wary of drawing too many conclusions from them, pointing that very often cases are withdrawn and witnesses turn hostile because of pressure outside the system without adequate protection given to them.

“This is the movement led by Dalit women in India,” the report says. “There is nothing for us to lose but everything for us to win, as we march on with the spirit of resistance in our hearts, to sound the death knells of the caste system.”