For some Indian women, caste is still a matter of life and death

Once known as ‘untouchables,’ India’s Dalit women are caught in a terrifying catch-22 when it comes to sexual violence, Dalit journalist Yashica Dutt writes in her new book.
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This essay is adapted from journalist Yashica Dutt’s memoir, Coming Out as Dalit, which examines the continuing brutal and pervasive nature of caste discrimination in India, particularly against Dalits — a “low-caste” group previously known as “untouchables.” Originally published in India, her book has been released worldwide with new chapters this month.

The bodies of women, which Indian societies consider the storehouse of their bloodline’s honor, don’t belong to them as much as they do to their families. But for Dalit women, their bodies are also where the upper-caste societies deliver abuse and caste violence. 

When upper-caste men need to remind a Dalit family of their place, they attack and abuse Dalit women. But even when punishment is not the point, upper-caste men feel they are entitled to sexual and physical ownership over Dalit women. Among the 500 (mostly rural) women that the authors of Dalit Women Speak Out, a study of the systemic violence that Dalit women face, interviewed, many spoke about the shocking practice of an upper-caste man raping a young Dalit bride on her wedding night. This rape and abuse continue throughout her life, where any upper-caste man can rape her any time he wants. When the husband of the woman sees the footwear of an upper-caste man outside his house, it is a sign, and he must spend the night elsewhere. 

The sexual abuse of Dalit women, where upper-caste men feel entitled to a Dalit woman’s body, follows them into the workplace. Dalit women from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, told the authors that on the day an upper-caste landowner wants to rape a Dalit woman working in his field, other workers are made to leave early to let him assault her. Like caste discrimination, this rape of Dalit women is still shockingly normal in many parts of India. Dalit women often have no choice but to accept it as a part of their lives. 

Dalit women who must deal with the horror and trauma of rape are also often imprisoned on false charges for trying to get justice. It’s a catch-22 situation for the woman — no matter how she reacts to her rape, she is to blame.


Upper-caste men also use public humiliation, mutilation and brutal violence against Dalit women to keep their families and entire Dalit communities in check. They use this violence on Dalit women to kill any pushback or dissent. It is also used to remind Dalits of their place if they are seen improving their lives by wearing good clothes, getting educated or making money. 

When it comes to rape in rural areas, it is very hard for Dalit women even to file a report. A 2001 study by Amnesty International recorded that police officers dismissed 30% of rape cases as false. Often, even the lawyers representing the women join forces with their rapists and try to stop them from filing their case. The Amnesty study found that lawyers often accepted bribes from the accused to advise their clients to drop the case altogether. If this doesn’t stop the woman from filing a First Information Report (FIR), then the upper-caste establishment, which includes India’s panchayat political system, punishes her family, and the entire Dalit community — blocking their access to water, land or neighborhood shops — until she is forced to withdraw her complaint. Or they try to buy her silence with an insignificant amount of money. If nothing works, then in some cases the police accept bribes to frame the Dalit survivor and her family with fake cases. So in a cruel irony, instead of the rapists, the Dalit woman and her family end up in jail instead.

The authors of Dalit Women Speak Out discovered several cases where the Dalit woman is not only raped but often imprisoned on false charges for trying to get justice. Among the many excuses the police use to not file the report of a Dalit woman’s sexual assault is to declare her “criminal” or, worse, “sexually available.” 

It’s a catch-22 situation for the woman — no matter how she reacts to her rape, she is to blame. If she resists the rape, then she is “violating” the caste order and must be punished. Two upper-caste men were convicted for gang-raping a 20-year-old woman in Bhawani, Haryana. When they were released from jail three years later, they raped her again to punish her for complaining. Men use the “she deserved it” excuse across all castes, but Dalit women are disproportionately at the receiving end of this because of the belief that due to her caste, she is “sexually available.” 

This perception that Dalit women are “sexually available” also affects the judgment in court cases. In 1972, two policemen raped Mathura, a 14-year-old Adivasi girl in the Desaiganj police station in Maharashtra. When Mathura’s rape case came to trial, the Supreme Court declared that because she was “used to sex, she might have incited the cops to have intercourse with her.” 

Yashica Dutt, pictured here, passed as dominant caste to survive discrimination. Eventually coming out as Dalit, she introduced this expression which powerfully resonated in India.
Courtesy of Yashica Dutt

After years of protests and petitions by women’s rights organizations, in 1982, the judiciary was forced to amend the law to consider the survivor’s testimony as proof that she did not consent to have sex and was, in fact, raped. But decades after the amendment, Indian courts continue to set upper-caste rapists free by justifying a Dalit woman’s “sexual availability” as the cause for her rape. Because of light sentences and extremely low rates of conviction, there is a perception that raping a Dalit woman has no consequences.

Even seemingly credible agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) appear to side with upper-caste rapists as they did in their shocking report of the death of Dalit cousins in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. The women were gang-raped and murdered, and their bodies were hung from trees in Katra in 2014. When their families approached the police to file a report, they were turned away. After days of protests by the villagers, the postmortem report declared they were gang-raped before their death, leading to arrests of men from the upper-caste Yadav community.

The state and central governments and the United Nations got involved in the investigation. Despite this, after five months of investigations under the glare of global attention, the CBI concluded that the young women had killed themselves because of their family’s displeasure over one of them dating a boy. The accused were not even taken to trial.

Or take Delta Meghwal, the 17-year-old polytechnic student from Barmer whose upper-caste instructor not only made her clean rooms but also forced her to sign a letter saying that the sex was consensual. He perhaps knew that it would be easy to convince the school authorities that a “sexually available” Dalit girl had consensual sex with him. When her body was found floating in a water tank the day after the alleged rape, the school authorities whisked it away in the back of a truck without informing the police or her father. 

The abuse by her instructor and the school’s attempted cover-up of her death show how easy most of the upper-caste establishment feels it is to get rid of a Dalit woman. In general, upper-caste women face less sexual assault and violence compared to Dalit women. Data from the National Family Health Survey indicated that in 2001, 11% of SC/ST women between the ages of 14 and 49 had experienced sexual violence compared to 7.6% of non-SC/ST women.

Which is why, every time a Dalit woman is assaulted, abused, raped or murdered, her caste matters. Even if she is not raped simply because she is Dalit, the conditions that lead to her assault are almost always affected by her status as a lower-caste woman in an upper-caste male-dominated society.

Excerpted from Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir of Surviving India’s Caste System by Yashica Dutt (Beacon Press, 2024). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Yashica Dutt is an award-winning writer and author of Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir of Surviving India’s Caste System.