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Sonia Preisler- Blog Post 2: Addressing Violence Against Dalit Women

Sonia Preisler- Blog Post 2: Addressing Violence Against Dalit Women

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* Content warning about sexual violence 

Recently, I’ve had the privilege of working with PRIA’s Gender Team project in Sonepat, Haryana, addressing violence against Dalit women. The project is wrapping up and I am in the process of compiling a report. This is a brief rendition of  what I’ve been learning, deconstructing and trying to digest.

Some background— Haryana is a developed state that presents irregularly on development indicators. The state sustains a high per capita income, in relation to the national scenario, however, performs quite low throughout the social development indicators. Surrounded by villages, Sonepat is also home to extremely exclusive private universities and institutions, which (of course) are isolated from the general community, with large gates, security guards and an occupation of a large amount of land. Incidences of caste-and-gender based violence, female feticide, low female literacy and honour killings are regular and common occurrences.

I definitely felt the lack of women in public spaces, and most of the children in the villages, were boys. Gender-biased sex selection literally denies girls a place in society, currently there are only 830 girls for every 1000 boys. A normal ratio would be 950 girls for every 1000 boys. This is a direct implication of deep patriarchal structures with immense preferences for sons.

The word Dalit comes from the Sanskrit root dal- and means “broken, ground-down, or oppressed”. Previously, before adopting this name for themselves, Dalits were referred to as the “Untouchables”, believed to be born into the stigma of this caste due to their traditional occupations which implied impurity and pollution. The government of India refers to them under the designated title Scheduled Castes. Dalits are socially excluded from society because they fell outside the traditional four-fold caste system consisting of the hereditary Brahmin, Kshatruya, Vaishya and Shudra castes. They represent a community of 240 million people in India, constituting 17% of the population. As one of the most marginalized caste groups in the hierarchy of Indian society, they regularly face discrimination and violence which prevent them from accessing the basic constitutional rights promised to all citizens of India.

In this extremely hierarchal system, Dalit women face pervasive exploitation, discrimination and subordination based on power relations caused by caste, class, and patriarchal constructs of gender. These severely imbalanced social, economic and political power equations systematically rationalize violence and deny Dalit women access to personal security, socio-economic development, agency, and social justice.  Yes, unequal status of women in India is a huge issue; however the human rights abuses inflicted against Dalit women cannot be treated at par with non-Dalit women. Though violence is experienced by all women, it is far more intense and widespread in the case of Dalit women. **Note, not all Dalit experiences are homogenous.

While in the field, I had an opportunity to talk to a few people regarding what seems to be a neglected and ignored issue of systematic violence. For the most part, people did not want to discuss violence because it has been rationalized and normalized, others feared retaliation. Even though the general public is starting to talk about sexual violence (especially after the December bus gang rape)… they only talk about it when it is a middle-class or upper-class women in the capital city, etc.  

As public spaces are mediated by caste and patriarchal prescriptions, they are seized upon as opportune places for exercising power and authority over Dalit women as individuals and as a collective through violence. Violence also occurs within the home, workplace, perpetrator’s home, and government spaces. The effect is the creation and maintenance of a culture of violence, and silence. Furthermore, professionals who are working to eradicate violence against women (sorry for being so cryptic) in Sonepat discussed how awareness campaigns were actually creating a backlash.       

The government of Haryana has taken some measures: these include two mahila police stations (all women police stations) with proposals to set up more; a four-digit toll free women’s helpline has been activated all over the state that connects the caller to a district police control room, and there legal aid services go around villages to educate people about their rights. But once again, social and cultural attitudinal changes are slow to change. Caste discrimination continues to be practiced within institutional bodies and greater society. Practically speaking, do all women have access to outgoing calls on their mobiles? Can they get to the police station from their villages?

There frequently remains a concomitant lack of implementation to ensure personal security of Dalit women, as well as efforts to emancipate the Dalit community and eradicate entrenched gender-and caste based notions of (in)equality and (in)justice. This is reflected in the ways institutional bodies process an occurrence of sexual assault with blatant lack of empathy and acknowledgement of the survivor’s experience, and neglecting to register a complaint to punish the perpetrator.

At the end of the month, PRIA is hosting a conference in Sonepat for all local and state actors who are working on these issues. More to come as we approach this event...