Who are India's Dalits, and why are they particularly vulnerable to gendered sexual violence?

They used to be called the 'untouchables', but these women are among the most vulnerable to sexual violence in India.

Dalit women in India are among the most vulnerable to gendered violence.

Dalit women in India are among the most vulnerable to gendered violence. Source: EPA

This article contains references to rape and sexual assault.

Nationwide protests have erupted across India following the deaths of two women from the marginalised Dalit community at the hands of men.

On Tuesday, two men allegedly raped a 22-year-old woman from Hathras, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. She died while being escorted to hospital, state police said.

The incident took place in Balrampur district, around 500 kilometres from where four upper-caste men allegedly gang-raped another Dalit woman last month.

The 19-year-old victim in that case was left paralysed by her injuries and was rushed to hospital in New Delhi 200 kilometres away, but died on Tuesday.

Violence against women is prevalent in India, but experts say Dalit women are especially vulnerable due to their low caste and a system that enables the perpetrators to get away with their alleged crimes. 

Who are the Dalits?

India’s caste system categorises Hindus from birth, and their caste defines their place in society, often including the kind of work they undertake and who they can marry.

The Dalits are the lowest in the Indian caste hierarchy. They were also referred to in Indian society as "untouchables”.

Professor Devleena Ghosh, an expert in Social and Political Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney, said Dalits received the latter nickname because they were seen as “polluting” by the upper class.

“They used to be called ‘untouchables’, which meant their touch or even their shadow was considered polluting to upper-caste Hindus,” Professor Ghosh told SBS News. 

She explained that this oppression dates back to India’s ancient days.


There are numerous stories around how the caste system originated - one being that it emerged from various body parts of the primordial being 'purusha'.

Another theory suggests they were the enslaved Indigenous people of the subcontinent who were seen as slaves by Aryan migrants.

Why do Dalit women face so much violence?

India’s caste system was officially abolished in 1950.

But Professor Ghosh said it’s not something that has been dealt with on a societal level. Today, lower-caste women face a disproportionate amount of violence due to a combination of factors.

“A lot of this abuse goes on in rural as well as urban areas and it’s a combination of this incredibly resilient caste system, and also poverty and low status,” she said.

“These people are usually poor - they often do work that higher-caste Hindus will not do. They might be leather workers, or scavengers, or toilet cleaners - a lot of work considered ‘polluting’ by the higher-cast Hindus.

“And very often, because of their poverty, women are on their own gathering food or out in the fields … and because of their status being so low - socially, culturally and economically - they become easy prey.

“A number of recent cases in India has shown you can actually violate or even kill a Dalit woman with impunity and very little punishment.”

Dalit women are more vulnerable to violence.
Source: AFP/Getty Images

Why are women in India protesting?

The two latest deaths have sparked widespread protests in India, with hundreds of angry demonstrators taking to the streets of Hathras.

Large-scale protests against gendered violence have been taking place in India for years, dating back to the mass demonstrations after the violent gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern from Delhi, in 2012.

Professor Ghosh said the women are protesting both for justice for the immediate alleged murders, and wider systemic changes in India to combat gendered violence.

“There were huge demonstrations at the time against both the violence against Jyoti Singh, and also more protests about violence against women in general,” she said.

“It seemed at that time that something might change. There was a commission, various things were recommended, in the tenure of the previous government.”

But following a change of government in 2014, Professor Ghosh said the violence has risen.

“Since 2014, especially in certain states - and Uttar Pradesh is one of them - the violence against women in general, and against Dalit women in particular, has risen and has been committed with impunity by higher-caste men.”

She said the authority figures responsible for policing these crimes and punishing those responsible often collude with police and the perpetrators themselves.

On top of all this, the victims have to deal with the additional burden of social stigma.

“It’s often been the case, where if a woman is raped - especially if she is alive to go and file a report with the police - her family is harassed in their village. This will happen again and again. So basically, reporting that you’ve been raped makes you vulnerable to all kinds of harassment," Professor Ghosh said. 

“In India, when a rape happens, often these questions are asked like ‘Why was she alone? Why was she wearing these clothes? She must have done something’.”

Following the alleged Hathras rape, former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju sparked outrage after stating that “sex is a natural urge in men”.

"I condemn the Hathras gang rape, and call for harsh punishment of the culprits. However, having said that there is one aspect which also needs to be considered. Sex is a natural urge in men. It is sometimes said that after food, the next requirement is sex," he wrote on Facebook.

He also linked India’s rising unemployment rate to the spurt of rape cases in India.

Professor Ghosh said such comments are an example of why violence against women remains so common in India.

“If you have educated people who are in the highest positions, like judges of the highest court in the land, who are making these kinds of statements, it doesn’t leave much room for hope," she said. 

When will the violence end?

Professor Ghosh said it could take a long time and a lot of effort by the masses to curb gendered violence in India.

“I think relationships of power and discrimination will always exist, because people in power have a reason to have those relationships exist, and they will do everything they can to keep those relationships going,” she said.

“But I have enough hope that in the long run, people will rise up against these kinds of terrible and oppressive and inequitable violence, because the numbers are not on the side of the people in power. Lower-caste Hindus make up over 50 per cent of India’s population - at some point or other, they are surely going to rise up against this oppression.

“But it will take a long time.”

Indian activists protest against an alleged gang rape of a 19 years old Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh state, in Bhopal, India, 1 October 2020.
Source: AP

Professor Ghosh also stressed that these sorts of power structures are a universal problem, not just confined to India.

“Discrimination and power relationships are there in every society. We know very well that African Americans in the United States, for example, are killed with impunity by the police, and very little ever happens to the people who do it, whether they’re police or ordinary citizens.

“Violence against women in European societies remains prevalent. After all these years of suffragettes and feminism and so on, domestic violence still kills approximately one woman a day in Australia."

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.


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Published 2 October 2020 at 8:58pm, updated 2 October 2020 at 9:05pm
By Gavin Fernando
Source: SBS News