Dalit Women’s Group Campaigns at UN Human Rights Council

This is the first instance of such a group voicing its concerns at an international forum.

New Delhi: At a side event of the 38th session of UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on June 18, the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM), a Dalit women’s organisation, presented a detailed report of the caste-based violence endured by women in India.

The report titled ‘Voices Against Caste Impunity: Narratives of Dalit Women’ is a compilation of accounts of victims and witnesses along with their testimonies about the impact of structural caste-based violence. It also contains statistics about such incidents and recommends policy action to end the violence. This is the first time a Dalit women’s group has presented such a report at an international forum like the UNHRC.

“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,” said Asha Kotwal, general secretary of AIDMAM.

The event had a panel comprising Rita Isazk-Ndiaye, member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Dubravka Aimonovi, special rapporteur on violence against women,  Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover and the AIDMAM general secretary Asha Kotwal.

No official representatives from India were present at the side event on June 21, at which the AIDMAM presented its report. Their absence was in keeping with the the country’s precedent of not acknowledging caste-based discrimination at international platforms. In March 2016, a report on caste discrimination in India submitted by Iszák-Ndiaye, who was then the UN special rapporteur for minorities, was met with contempt and criticism from the government. Ajit Kumar, India’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, then said that such a report was outside the rapporteur’s mandate.

“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”. “In the absence of any system domestically to deal with this kind of violence, we want to raise it within the international human rights framework”, she added.

Sylvia Karpagam, author of the report, said that caste-based violence meets most criteria of human rights violations. “But the government either says it does not exist or that we (they) 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.”

The event saw constructive inputs from all panel members.

“Many Dalit victims and their families in India are not informed of their rights and atrocities committed against them are crimes. Institutionalised impunity for crimes committed against Dalit women in India must be addressed. The police’s reluctance and deliberate omissions to register complaints and arrest perpetrators must be questioned,” Grover said.

The lawyer further added, “the number of cases registered is a fraction of the actual number of crimes that take place. In many instances, these crimes do not get reported due to non-cooperative police and judicial machinery, shame and social stigma, and the fear of retaliation by the dominant caste groups.” The Dalit women’s group used the UN international forum to give a global voice to their plight and to seek stronger actions from within the UN and other international human rights organisations.

Kotwal said that “caste-based discrimination is a global issue, but India should take stronger initiatives to combat this discrimination as it has the largest population of Dalit people”.

“UN human rights mechanisms including High Commissioner Navi Pillay have repeatedly addressed caste-based crimes. When will UN consider caste-based crimes as one of the most serious humanitarian crises,” she added.

Key findings of the report 

The report quotes official data on caste-based gender violence and contextualises it through several personal narratives of Dalit women and girls. The National Family Health Survey (4th round) shows that 33.2% women from the Scheduled Castes experience physical violence from the age of 15 compared to 19.7% in the ‘Other’ category. In the past decade (2007-2017), there has been a 66% growth in crimes against Dalits, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

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 pressures from outside the system and the absence of adequate protection.

The caste divide has also severely hampered the economic status of Dalit women. According to the report, the average wages per day of SC women is Rs 90/day (less than $2) while ‘other’ category women earn an average of around Rs 251/day (approximately $5). “Keeping the SC community economically vulnerable emboldens dominant caste communities to continue to oppress them and retain control,” says the report.

One of the main hurdles that the Dalit community faces is not having access to quality education. According to statistics in the report, literacy levels are lowest among SC girls at 24.4%, compared to the national average of 42.8%. Further, their schooling experience is riddled with caste-based discrimination.

Gayatri, a woman featured in the report says, “Primary education in Madhya Pradesh is very hard for children from our community. The schools give such bad food to our children. Till the 8th Std. there are no exams. Children are just promoted from one class to another. When they reach 9th or 10 Std, there is very poor performance. They score zero.”

The positions of power in local governance also seem to be there just to cater to the affirmative action quota of the government. Most Dalit women who get the position of sarpanch (head of the panchayat) do not exercise real authority. The report says. “the women and their husbands are given clothes and some amount of cash. They are told that they should be happy to be getting so much money. With the rest of the money, the dominant castes do whatever they want. It is just on paper that the Dalit woman is the sarpanch”.

Vartika Neeraj is currently pursuing a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) from Ashoka University. She is an intern at The Wire.