On Sept. 14, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was brutally gang raped by four upper caste men in a field near her home in Uttar Pradesh — the largest state in India. Tragically, she succumbed to her injuries two weeks later, on Sept. 29, including a severed spinal cord.
Adding insult to injury, authorities denied her family their right to their daughter’s body and hastily cremated it themselves under the cover of night.
Her story raises four critical issues India must address in order to end rampant sexual violence against women.
How could the local police deny a traumatized, grieving family the last rites for their daughter?
In India the answer is predictable: because they are Dalits. Even in death India’s caste system denies human dignity.
In barring this young woman’s family from preparing her body for a proper funeral — and disposing of it themselves — the police of Uttar Pradesh were complicit in the dehumanization of this dear Dalit woman. They were also trying to cover her brutal rape.
Such lawlessness among those who are supposed to uphold the law bodes ill not only for Uttar Pradesh but also for other states in India. This is one of the reasons why Martin Luther King, Jr., was correct when he said “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” If perpetrators of crime are not punished in India’s largest state then what keeps the authorities from doing the same in others?
Thankfully, in this case, the federal Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), intervened, confirming the rape and charge the upper caste perpetrators. Unfortunately, this is too uncommon, and it should have happened first at the authority of the state itself.
As Isabel Wilkerson explains in her monumental book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” India’s society remains governed by a 3,000-year-old caste system that divides and subdivides people into upper and lower castes at birth. A person’s birth status determines his or her permanent place in life.
Let’s be clear: This young woman who lost her life to sexual violence was killed because she was a member of one of the lowest castes in India, the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables.” There are 200 million like her living in India and they are heinously abused, shunned and largely barred from opportunities for personal advancement.
Although Article 15 of India’s Constitution expressly prohibits discrimination based on “religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth” and Article 17 abolishes the practice of “untouchability,” caste discrimination continues to be an awful reality for many today.
Yet, these laws are too often ignored in India’s state of Uttar Pradesh which has one of the highest rates of crime against Dalits in India. It isn’t just Uttar Pradesh either. The number one crime against Dalits across the nation is rape and a disproportionate number of Dalit, Tribal and other low caste girls are victims of sex trafficking and ritualized prostitution.
Women of all castes are brutalized in India. But if a woman is born to a low caste, she is automatically a target for sexual violence. It is a matter of “when” not “if” she is abused. Until the caste hierarchy is truly done away with, this will, sadly, always be the case. Caste discrimination represents the single largest human rights issue in the world as it has for thousands of years.
A woman’s inherent dignity
Because the caste system relegates women to a lower order of human beings, women in India are often seen as objects for exploitation without consent in other circumstances, and the situation is getting worse..
The National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) 2019 “Crime in India” report shows crimes against women increased by more than 7% from 2018 to 2019. These crimes include “cruelty by husband or his relatives,” “assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty,” “kidnapping and abduction of women” and “rape.” The actual numbers are probably higher, as the majority of these crimes go unreported.
In 2018, India earned the notorious designation of being the most dangerous country in the world for women. From 2007 to 2016, “there were four cases of rape reported every hour.” It’s a grim statistic, and an image India does not want to portray to the world. But, it’s true
Slow judicial proceedings
The High Court of Lucknow intends to prosecute the guilty officials for their disposal of this young woman’s body — but how soon will those four evil men be prosecuted for — and convicted of — rape?
The four perpetrators were only recently charged with “murder, rape and gang rape” and the case will not be officially taken up by the High Court of Lucknow until Jan. 27, 2021.
As the NCRB data make clear, numerous sexual assault and rape cases are languishing in India’s Courts, are not investigated sufficiently and are closed or are thrown out under dubious or vague conditions. There were more than 145,000 rape cases awaiting trial in India at the end of 2019. Fewer than 30% of rapists are convicted when they are brought to trial.
Justice for India’s daughters who have been sexually assaulted or raped is far too slow. Survivors or their parents have to fight month after month and, in some cases, for a decade or more just for attention, much less justice. India’s so-called “fast track” courts are not fast at all. Unless the judicial system itself is reformed and made fit for this century in the world’s largest democracy, nothing will change.
Just this weekend, a 50-year-old woman was gang raped, brutalized and killed by a priest and two others on Sunday, January, in Baduan Uttar Pradesh. Merely appealing to the Indian Constitution will not fix what is broken.
As an Indian society, we need to understand that women are valuable — and they are not just valuable, but they are equal humans who possess inherent dignity. If we refuse to accept that truth, India will remain an incredibly unsafe country for women and girls and the world will be the worse for it.
This is not the way the women of any nation want to enter the new year.