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“Caste Is Not Culture, Caste Is Criminal” say Dalit activists at HRC26 side event

arton4477On 17 June, against the backdrop of the annual full day discussion on women human rights of the 26th session of the Human Rights Council, powerful and heartfelt statements and testimonies filled the room during the side-event on “Caste-based Violence against Women: The role of the UN in combating caste-based violence and discrimination.” Participants, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, looked back at recent and brutal gender-based violence against Dalit women and girls, including the rape and hanging of the two young girls from the small village of Katra in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In addition, participants watched footage from the film about the 2014 Dalit Women March of Self-determination (“Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra”), held earlier this year in India. The film contains photographs and video footage that show the brutality of structural violence against Dalit women and how it is ingrained within the caste system. Consequently the ongoing Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra campaign aims to raise awareness on the ground about the issue of violence against Dalit women, and demands justice and accountability.

Punitive violence against Dalit women/communities

The full extent of the violence committed against Dalit women and women of other marginalized communities, such as indigenous, tribal or Adivasi women, is hard to measure. Many Dalit women are not taken seriously by the authorities and medical services, more often than not meaning that their cases remain unreported. For instance, Durgo Sob of the Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO) of Nepal, explained that in her country, less than 5% of all rape cases involving Dalit women are reported.

As explained by UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Rita Iszák, in many caste-affected countries, the Dalits have no or few rights. Saraswathi Menon, Director of the Policy Division at UN Women, added that the act of rape and other forms of violence against Dalit women is a means to control the Dalits and intimidate them against fighting for their rights, which are denied by the caste system. In other words, sexual violence has become a form of reprisal violence; it occurs when lower caste women try to “transgress” caste and gender norms, such as when they assert their right to bodily integrity, or when a community defies caste norms.

Caste is not a national phenomenon, it is a global one

“Caste is not culture; caste is criminal!” Asha Kowtal, General Secretary of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch(AIDMAM) lamented. The High Commissioner underscored that caste-based violence and discrimination violate human dignity and rights (civil, political, economic, social and cultural) of over 260 million people across the globe. Many speakers touched upon the misperception that the caste-system and its related violence is purely an Indian issue. Although common in India, caste-based discrimination also occurs in neighbouring countries (Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) and in other parts of the world, including Africa, the Middle East and even in Europe and the United States. For instance, almost half of all the Dalit women in Nepal have faced different forms of discrimination. Furthermore, 80% of trafficked girls in Nepal are from the Dalit community, Ms. Sob pointed out. According to Ms. Menon, human rights treaty bodies have made recommendations regarding caste for 22 different countries. Consequently, Manjula Pradeep, Director, Navsarjan Trust, Women in Governance-India said, “The discussion on how to end this inhuman system needs to take place on both a national and a global level with UN engagement.”

Double discrimination

Women are even more affected than men by caste-based discrimination. They are not only discriminated upon from a caste-based perspective, but also face discrimination based on gender and socio-economic factors, Ms. Pillay stressed, noting that this makes them easy targets for practices of sexual violence, forced labour, slavery, trafficking and other human rights violations, including violations of the rights to food, water, sanitation, healthcare, education, adequate housing, and equal participation in political, economic and social life. The Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues and the representative from UN Women also affirmed this intersection between caste and gender. Ms. Menon explained: “The caste system is intrinsically hierarchical and its heart incorporates elements of domination and exclusion. In parallel, gender inequality is bound up with patriarchy and power, which also incorporates domination and exclusion. The intersection of the two creates very specific forms of discrimination that are deeply entrenched and can only be overcome by addressing the structural issues that underpin both.” Ms. Menon continued by noting that the intergenerational nature of caste-based discrimination condemns women to a life of exclusion, marginalization and disadvantage in every sphere of life.


The senior UN human rights officials also voiced concern about the impunity underlying these human rights violations. Despite the presence of 177 special courts to deal with caste-based violence in India, women continue to suffer such violence, often lacking “police protection, registration and investigation of cases, and legal assistance in their pursuit of justice,” Ms. Menon explained. “Too often they face additional abuse and discrimination from the very officials and service providers who should provide them support,” she cautioned. “Such impunity must end,” Ms. Pillay urged, emphasizing that the victims of these crimes deserve justice: “Discrimination and violence should no longer be tolerated.” It is the duty of States to take the necessary steps to prevent these crimes and protect the rights of vulnerable people and communities. The High Commissioner called for the strengthening of legal frameworks, law enforcement and the judiciary system; inclusive policy and institutional measures to address the various forms of discrimination; and the promotion of the equality and dignity of every human being. Her call was reiterated by Juliette De Rivero, Geneva Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, who called on States to “undertake systemic changes for proper enforcement of laws, and ensure that public officials, including the police, are held accountable when they fail in their duty.”

Moving forward: a call for action and solidarity

The side-event highlighted that despite the efforts and recommendations made by grassroots movements, civil society organizations and international human rights mechanisms (e.g. Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures mandate-holders and the Universal Periodic Review Working Group), and despite existing laws and regulations, there is a lack of focused attention and real action to halt these harmful practices. “Much remains to be done to end caste-based violence and discrimination,” the UN Special Rapporteur stressed. “Despite legislation, there is a failure to implement laws and a tendency to minimize the gravity of the situation,” Ms. Menon acknowledged. This was affirmed by Ms. Kowtal, who stated, “Caste-based rape and violence against Dalit women and girls is escalating as we fight to claim justice. The amount of cases is growing and the brutality of the crimes is becoming increasingly severe. Systems of justice meant to protect Dalit women at the national level are completely failing us. We are asking for immediate loud and clear global support in our struggle.” Rikke Nöhrlind, Director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), asked participants to stand by women suffering from caste-based violence and to demonstrate global solidarity. “The world that so strongly supported the fight against apartheid must now tackle caste discrimination with the same commitment,” she urged.

In line with the 2011 report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women to the Human Rights Council, Ms. Menon urged States to adopt a holistic approach and to recognize that the impacts of discrimination on women differ according to the existing socio-economic and cultural hierarchies and organization of the societies in which they are living. In her view, efforts to end all forms of violence against women should not only address individual incidents, but foremost challenge the fundamental and specific inequalities, marginalization and systematic discrimination that women face. In addition, the broader social norms, perceptions, attitudes and beliefs must be shifted to end prejudices and stereotypes of caste hierarchy, domination and exclusion. National policies, institutions and legislation should recognize the intersectionality and the specificity of compounded discriminations. She further insisted, “Violence against caste-affected communities cannot be eliminated without a comprehensive approach to realizing all their human rights” and that women and girls must be empowered and collectively be able to claim their rights and have access to in(formal) redress and remedies.

More information

The side event was sponsored by Human Rights Watch, International Movement against all forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), Minority Rights Group, Franciscan International, and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia); co-sponsored by Norway and Denmark; and organized in association with International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN).

To read the IDSN recommendations to the OHCHR and UN Agencies to end caste-based discrimination and caste-based violence against women and girls, click here.

To read the joint press release by IDSN and Human Rights Watch, click here.

Click here to access the leaflet: Dalit Women fight!

Click here for selected press clippings.

Read interview with Asha Kowtal, International Dalit Solidarity Network, here.


This article is also available in French.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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