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Caste, gender, and violence

Murali Krishnan, New DelhiJune 2, 2014

The brutal gang rape of two teenage girls has once again exposed the vulnerability of Indian women to sexual crimes. Experts say low-caste women are subject to sexual assaults more often than others.

Activists attend a silent protest march against a recent rape case in Calcutta, India, 15 June 2013 (Photo: EPA/PIYAL ADHIKARY)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It has been almost a week since the gang rape of two Dalit girls in the small village of Katra in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A number of politicians and government officials have visited the family of the deceased to offer condolences and compensation. The bereaved family, however, has refused to accept the money.

According to the police, on Tuesday May 27, the two cousins, aged 14 and 15, went missing from their home after going into the fields because there was no toilet in their home. The following day Indian TV footage showed the villagers sitting under the girls' bodies as they swung in the wind, and preventing authorities from taking them down until the suspects were arrested. An autopsy report found the girls had been raped before being hanged from a tree. Police arrested two police officers and two men from the village the following day and are searching for three other suspects.

There have been several rape cases in the South Asian country in the past few years, but this one highlighted the link between India's caste system and the increasing sexual violence against women.

Lady in yellow mustard flowers in field
Another 17-year-old girl was gang raped in the state's Azamgarh district on May 30Image: picture alliance/Dinodia Photo Library

"Can there be any justice for the low-caste people like us? Do we always have to live and be treated like animals?” asks Lilawati, a neighbor of one of the murdered girls.

The father of one of the girls stood motionless in a corner of his ramshackle house. He only opened up only when the debate veered to whether justice would be done in his daughter's case.

"Two policemen took part in the assault. I pleaded to the senior officials to arrest them but they didn't listen to me. Justice is not meant for us. Dalits are treated like dogs," he told DW, adding that had the police acted swiftly after his daughter went missing, she could have been saved.

A series of gang rapes

The recent attacks have spotlighted India's ongoing struggle with sexual violence. Women's safety in India has been in the international spotlight since the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi in 2012 - an incident that drew international condemnation and led to the introduction of stricter laws.

Officials say around 25,000 rapes are committed every year in India, a nation of 1.2 billion people. Activists say, however, that number is low because female victims are often pressured by family or police to remain quiet about the crime.

Statistics reveal that Dalit women are harassed, raped and even murdered with impunity, indicating that things haven't changed much despite the fact that India now takes the issue of rape more seriously than before.

"It is amply clear that dominant castes are known to use sexual violence against Dalit women and girls to punish them, assert their power or simply settle personal disputes," Ranjana Kumari of the Center for Social Research told DW.

Caste-based violence

Dalits make up 21 percent of the 200 million people living in Uttar Pradesh. "Dalit women are more vulnerable to sexual crimes than other social groups. They feel more insecure, and face structural violence," Kalpana Kannabiran, director of the Council for Social Development, told DW, adding that the caste system allows such crimes to continue without any check.

Police escort men (face covered) accused of a gang rape, outside a police station in Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi August 31, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)
Public outrage has grown in India after a series of rape crimes.Image: Reuters

Campaigners like Vrinda Grover, a lawyer and women's rights activist, who was in the forefront of the movement that tightened India's anti-rape laws, feels little has changed on ground.

"Look at the systemic and routine sexual violence experienced by Dalit girls and women. And still some people say that castes do not matter in India. We all should be ashamed," Grover told DW.