More Dalit women in India report crimes, but slow probes and low conviction continue

In 2019, there were 3,486 reported cases of rapes against Dalits, and another 3,375 cases of sexual assault. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGALORE - India's lower-caste Dalit women have long struggled to get justice for crimes against them in the Indian justice system.

National data and the experiences of survivors and activists both reveal that crimes against Dalit women see shoddier investigation and fewer convictions than crimes against other women.

Dalit Women Fight, a community-led organisation to amplify Dalit women's voices, has been training local women in five states for 15 years to monitor abuses, support rape survivors and provide legal support.

Ms Riya Singh, an activist with the collective, said: "We are resigned to the reality that the government, whoever is in power, will not change. Rapes and assault keep happening, there is brief public outrage, media coverage, and that's it. The caste hierarchy and systemic violence is deep in society, including police and courts."

According to data from India's National Crime Records Bureau, reported cases of rape against Dalit women and children rose by 37 per cent between 2015 and 2019. The increase was faster than the 23 per cent rise in reported crimes against all women.

In 2019, there were 3,486 reported cases of rapes against Dalits, and another 3,375 cases of sexual assault. Most reported rape cases were recorded in Rajasthan; the rate of reported crimes, which considers a state's Dalit population, was highest in Kerala.

Prolonged delays in investigation and prosecution of crimes in India are common, but Dalit activists said that the system probed crimes against Dalits especially slowly.

Ms Delta Meghwal, a 19-year-old Dalit, was allegedly raped by a teacher and found dead in a water tank in 2016. After four years, the case is still pending hearing in the lowest court. Activists working with her family said her father "felt resigned."

Of the reported rape cases against Dalits in 2019, over a quarter were yet to be investigated by the police by the end of the year. Of the about 12,500 that made it to court that year, over 91 per cent were still pending trial at the end of the year.

While overall conviction rate for rape cases in India is 25 per cent, it is only 2 per cent when the victim is a Dalit woman.

India has special laws to address offences against Dalit and Adivasi people, but lawyers and activists say that under-reporting is still widespread.

A report published in September by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative found that survivors of rape had faced "delay, derision, pressure and severe harassment when they approach the police to report complaints". A prominent nationwide health survey from 2015-16 found that 99 per cent of all sexual violence cases go unreported to the police.

"Access to social media, education, and opportunities has made more Dalit women empowered and vocal. But speaking up and reporting crimes won't change much until the mindset of perpetrators, police and government changes," said Ms Singh.

Ms Singh and 10 other prominent activists filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding that an impartial agency investigate September's alleged gang rape of the 19-year-old in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.

It "is not an isolated incident but actually stems from the country's long oppressive history based on caste that continues even in 2020," their petition says.

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