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Visible Work, Invisible Women

"Brickworkers"  from the exhibit, "Visible Work, Invisible Women"  (P. Sainath/

"Brickworkers" from the exhibit, "Visible Work, Invisible Women" (P. Sainath/

In Indian southern states Dalit women are also forced into prostitution, a problem that is believed to have already been effectively outlawed and combated. It is a system in which Dalit women particularly from sub-castes such as the untouchable category will, upon attaining the age of puberty, be ritually married off to a temple deity and effectively serve as a sexual slave to community members and even the police. Like other forms of violence against women ritualized prostitution is in effect a system that is designed to kill the honor and decency of all communities. And attacks on women, particularly in land disputes or in any kind of confrontation between upper-caste and lower-caste communities, becomes the means and weapons by which political dissenters are silenced.

Despite the plethora of legislation setting minimum wage and addressing land distribution in India, there is very little enforcement of these laws. And there is very little ability of Dalit to demand higher wages, to organize themselves as a collective, or to lay claim to land that is legally theirs. The first example I mentioned, of the woman being paraded half-naked, was precisely a means to teach the Dalit family, and as a result the entire community of Dalit, that standing up and fighting for their rights would result in further economic and physical violence.

Economic boycotts-we have documented many instances in which trying to organize oneself to claim one's rights also results in economic boycotts against the entire community. The entire community will be cut off from the ration shops, will not be allowed to use the village wells, and will not be allowed to come the next day for employment on the upper-caste landlord's fields.

Women are further expected to work in the upper-caste homes after a long day of work in the fields, and of course to come home to their own homes and perform many of the household functions, including being the primary care-takers of the children. The health issues, high maternity mortality rates and such, are things that I believe Adrienne will address, but are also part and parcel of being a Dalit woman in India today.

I have already spoken a little bit about gang rape and rape generally as an epidemic in rural areas in India today. Dalit women and girls are raped to suppress movements for demanding higher wages; they are raped when they dare to marry outside of their caste; and they are raped in order to teach the entire community a lesson. Something very specific to the caste contexts, although certainly not specific to India, is inflicting violent lessons to entire communities through the bodies of women.

Then we reach the issue of justice and whether or not these Dalit women have any recourse for the violence committed against them or for the exploitation of their labor. They face, unfortunately, insurmountable obstacles for seeking redress for the crimes committed against them. If a girl is poor, belongs to a lower caste and has very little access to the justice system, then seeking any redress for these types of crimes becomes nearly impossible. Some of you may have heard of a very famous case in the state Rajasthan. A low caste woman there tried to speak out against a child marriage in her community. She was gang raped for speaking out against the marriage, a type of marriage which had been outlawed in the state. Finally, after the women's rights groups had taken up the case and it had gone from court to court and judge to judge, at some point all of the defendants in the case were acquitted. The reasoning being that an upper-caste man would not defile himself by having sex with a lower-caste woman. Because the women's movement had so successfully articulated this case, it is actually still on appeal at the Supreme Court. But for every such courageous woman (behind whom there is a women's movement), there are literally thousands of others who simply do not speak out on issues of violence and exploitation against them. In fact over 100,000 cases of atrocities against Dalit are reported in India every year, and that many believe is a very conservative estimate as most Dalit are unable to report crimes against them for fear of further economic and physical retaliation.