Women campaign to dismantle India’s destructive caste system

The caste system is doing more than dictate socioeconomic status — it’s fueling violence against women

Credit: Thenmozhi Soundararajan/#DalitWomenFight

In India, caste systems control and direct society. The nation’s nearly 200 million Dalits — formerly known as “untouchables” — are among the lowest ranking groups and Dalit women are especially vulnerable to discrimination and sexual violence. At least four Dalit women are raped every day, according to the National Crime Record Bureau, and the group faces discrimination from high ranking officials like the Union Minister of State, V.K. Singh, who recently likened people in the Dalit group to dogs.

“The reality of Dalit women and girls is one of exclusion and marginalization, which perpetuates their subordinate position in society and increases their vulnerability, throughout generations,” Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, said in an interview with PRI.

To resist this abuse, the woman-led All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, or AIDMAM) works to challenge the violence against women perpetuated by the caste system in defense of human rights. “In 2012, we heard about more than 45 cases of gang rape and sexual violences cases in just one area outside of Delhi, said Asha Kowtal, AIDMAM’s general secretary, in an interview with Women in the World. “As a small group of activists and students, we got together and decided we needed to go visit these villages and survivors, to talk with them and comfort them, and go and petition legistlators at the local and district level.”

The women in the group, many of whom are survivors of violence, went on to hold a march across northern Indian states last year as part of the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect Yatra. In 2013, they created #dalitwomenfight to connect women around the world to “have a discussion around building solidarity,” and the next year, spoke at the Women in the World Summit.

The group works tirelessly to build understanding about the root causes of violence against women across India. Though cases of violence and rape in India have garnered local and international attention in recent years, there has been little focus on the tie to caste-based apartheid, and the role the government has played in perpetuating it.

“Violent acts against Dalit women are public, performative acts of violence meant to shame women, and silence and terrorize communities,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Director of #dalitwomenfight, in an interview with Women in the World. “It makes a severe statement that these are the consequences of crossing caste apartheid lines, and it’s abetted by a pipeline of impunity by the Indian government.  If the government were to start talking about this problem and bringing these perpetrators to justice, they would have to acknowledge how much of this violence contributes to maintaining the caste system in India.”


In September, #DalitWomenFight staged a die-in at the heart of Times Square in New York City.

AIDMAM is currently on tour in North America to engage with women’s rights activists and share their stories to combat gender-based violence. Along with creating a platform for art and discussion on social media, they staged a die-in protest in New York City, met with leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to discuss organization strategies and held discussions with women behind #SayHerName.”

“We saw so many parallels in our struggles, while recognizing the differences of race and caste. We realized the similarities of the impunity of state violence that denies us justice, dignity and respect,” Kowtal said in an interview with PRI. “We talked about how brownness in India is also whiteness through Brahmin and uppercaste privilege. We talked about solidarity, how we unpack these questions that are very important to us, and now we have amazing new sisters and allies.”

As violence persists in India, #dalitwomenfight stresses the importance of government action, from the crime scene to the courtroom. “Especially after the 2012 case of gang rape in Delhi, there is a lot of media coverage about sexual violence against women,” said Kowtal, “but unfortunately, everything is going wrong at every step, if you look at the cases. There has not been much of a change, government impunity is continuing in many forms. It’s much more brazen and unchallenged on the ground, despite all this discussion and media coverage.”



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