As we mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th, India needs to recognise that in order to successfully eliminate sexual violence, the specific needs and barriers to justice faced by women and girls from marginalised communities must be addressed.
Official statistics from India’s National Crime Records Bureau indicate that almost ten Dalit women are raped every day across the country. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg, with a large proportion of cases not counted in official statistics because their attack was not recorded by the police.
A harrowing example of this is Leela’s case. The young Dalit woman was gang raped by three dominant caste men from her village in India’s northern state of Haryana. One of them was the Sarpanch, the elected head of the panchayat – the village council responsible for local self-government.
In almost all the 40 cases studied for the report, victims and their families who sought legal justice for rape were subjected to extreme pressure to stay silent and not pursue criminal prosecution.
When Leela went to the police station to register a criminal complaint about her assault, her rapists were waiting there. Instead of providing protection, police officers stood by and watched as the men threatened to sexually and physically assault Leela again, and the Sarpanch warned she would be banished from the village if she tried to press charges.
Leela turned to her family for help but received none, and her husband declared he would divorce her unless she agreed not to pursue her case. Without support from either the police or her loved ones, Leela was left with no chance of obtaining justice and her attackers faced no repercussions for their terrible actions.
Rape survivors from marginalised communities prevented from accessing justice
Even for the fraction of survivors who are able to file police complaints, it is only the beginning of a long and arduous quest for justice. A report by women’s rights organisations Swabhiman Society and Equality Now, Justice Denied: Sexual Violence and Intersectional Discrimination, examined the multiple barriers to accessing justice encountered by Dalit women and girls in Haryana.
In almost all the 40 cases studied for the report, victims and their families who sought legal justice for rape were subjected to extreme pressure to stay silent and not pursue criminal prosecution. This includes being subjected to stigma and victim blaming, threats and bribery, retaliation, and further violence.
Over 80% of survivors were forced to deal with their case through unofficial village councils (khap panchayats). Through this local political system, economic, social and political clout was frequently applied to intimidate and coerce survivors into staying silent or refraining from pursuing criminal charges.
Almost 60% of survivors were forced into compromising their cases. “Upper” caste perpetrators and members of their families commonly subjected plaintiffs and their relatives to threats and demands to drop all legal action and instead accept an extra-legal settlement.
Patriarchal and caste power structures compel women and girls to agree, with settlements reached outside the parameters of the law and negotiated by community members including the perpetrators and their supporters. Further, survivors don’t always receive the compensation promised under these extra-legal settlements.
In addition to withstanding immense community pressure, those women and girls who persevered against huge odds to continue seeking legal justice hit further obstacles within the criminal justice system – the very system meant to provide aid and protection, with many in the system even encouraging such compromises.
Patriarchal and caste power structures compel women and girls to agree, with settlements reached outside the parameters of the law and negotiated by community members including the perpetrators and their supporters.
In Haryana, as per official crime records data from 2020, over 35% of rape cases under investigation by the police were ended with a final report as “false”, which is often done due to the compromises entered into between the survivor or her family and the accused despite the fact that the original rape complaint was in fact accurate.
Deep-rooted change is urgently needed
Dominant caste perpetrators rely on impunity from a system that often protects rapists over women and girls who bear the burden of intersectional discrimination stemming from their disadvantaged sex, caste, social and economic status.
The Indian and Haryana governments need to do more to protect survivors from the impact of such community pressure, including holding accountable police officers and other justice system officials who encourage or pressure survivors to compromise, and improving victim and witness protection processes to shield survivors from threats.
Action must also be taken against community members who pressure survivors to compromise. For instance, Nepal passed an ordinance in December 2020 which makes it a criminal offence for people to force mediation or reconciliation between rape victims and perpetrators or their families; with individuals holding public office or people’s representatives trying to mediate facing more stringent punishment.
The Indian government has a legal and moral duty to ensure prevention of sexual violence and access to justice for survivors, both in the larger community and through the criminal justice system. Understanding and recognising the huge role played by such compromises in cases of rape by the government is the first step towards enacting holistic structural reforms so that those subjected to sexual violence get the justice they are entitled to and deserve.
Divya Srinivasan is the South Asia Consultant for Equality Now, and Manisha Mashaal is Director of Swabhiman Society. The views expressed are the author’s own and not that of the organisation.
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