Focused action needed to mend failure to support the rights of people of discriminated castes, particularly women and girls

navy pillayNavi Pillay, the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose term ends on August 31, 2014, made a powerful speech deploring several incidents of  caste-based rapes and violence as reported from India recently in a public meeting held at Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 17, 2014. Excerpts:

Caste-based discrimination fundamentally undermines human dignity. It damages the full spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the persons concerned – who today amount to some 260 million people, globally. This violation of human rights, which is intensified by stigma, is not restricted to one region or one religious community. Caste-based and similar forms of discrimination are a serious concern in South Asia, but they are also prevalent in other parts of Asia, as well as in Africa, the Middle East and – as your action and advocacy clearly demonstrate – in Europe.

Women from stigmatized castes suffer the double assault of caste-based and gender-based discrimination. These can be further compounded by discrimination based on their occupation and other socio-economic factors, including whether or not they are migrants. They are at very high risk 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. And all too often abuses of their rights are committed with complete impunity.

Last month, in the small village of Katra in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, two young Dalit girls who had no toilet in their homes went out into the fields at night. They were attacked, raped, and at dawn their bodies were found hanging from a tree. The villagers were so convinced that this crime would not be adequately investigated that they sat under the girls’ bodies to prevent authorities from taking them down until the suspects were arrested.

This sadly unexceptional event exposed the brutality and violence that Dalit girls and women face, as well as specific dangers related to lack of safe sanitary facilities, and an underlying lack of confidence in systems for accessing justice. A 2011 report by my office on Access to Justice for Dalits in Nepal has also discussed this issue.

Because of praiseworthy action by civil society and the media, the case of the two young girls in Katra has generated widespread outrage, and the authorities have taken vigorous action to investigate it. But in practice, many such cases, in many countries, have not been properly investigated or prosecuted.

Such impunity must end. The victims of these crimes must receive justice; and societies, communities and officials must receive the clear message that discrimination and violence will no longer be tolerated. States must take steps to prevent such violence and discrimination and protect the rights of vulnerable people and communities.

This effort of prevention will require considerable work, including a strong legal framework. We have in recent years seen some commendable efforts to tackle the issue of discrimination based on caste, such as stronger laws to combat manual scavenging in India, the criminalization of caste-based discrimination in Nepal, and the commitment of the UK authorities to prohibit by law discrimination based on caste. I also welcome the recent support and protection for victims and witnesses in some countries. But there is a fundamental need for renewed effort to train law enforcement, the judiciary and other key duty bearers to ensure that cases are properly handled from this point on, and that they act in conformity with international obligations.

Violence against women of poorly regarded castes has very deep roots, which cannot be tackled without far-reaching efforts. Clearly laws are necessary, but they are not enough. Yes, this work should begin with legal, policy and institutional measures to address the multiple forms of discrimination that they suffer from birth, and these measures must be developed and implemented in consultation with caste-affected groups, particularly women.

But there must also be fundamental change within communities, to peel off, layer by layer, the mind-set that generates caste discrimination and bigotry. I urge the concerned authorities to seek by every means to alter degrading perceptions based on caste – particularly those regarding women – and instead to promote the fundamental equality and dignity of every human being.

My office has supported the development of legislation to combat caste-based discrimination, and has organized regional consultations to exchange and expand a range of existing good practices. International human rights mechanisms, including the Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures mandate-holders and the Universal Periodic Review Working Group, have also increasingly raised concerns on caste-based discrimination. They have recommended specific measures that should be taken by states and other stake-holders to alleviate the multiple burden of caste and gender based discrimination.

These recommendations have had positive influence on work at the national level, interlinking with the valuable advocacy of civil society actors regarding caste-based discrimination. In this regard, I urge governments to fully implement all the recommendations made by international human rights mechanisms, as well as those arising from national processes.

Our outrage is not enough. We must take real and focused action to mend our societies’ dramatic failure to support the rights of people of discriminated castes, particularly women and girls.

Other voices at UN Human Rights Council, Geneva

Juliette De RiveroJuliette De Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch:

Dalit communities have long suffered serious abuses, but the state response has fallen short. The government should 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.

ManjulaManjula Pradeep, leading Dalit rights activist, director, Navsarjan Trust:

Caste-based violence and discrimination not only affects women in India but millions of other women across the world in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Yemen and other caste-affected countries. Pradeep stated: “The discussion on how to end this inhuman system needs to take place on both a national and a global level with UN engagement.

asha kotwalAsha Kowtal, leading a delegation of Dalit women to the Human Rights Council:

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 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.

rikkiRikke Nöhrlind, director at the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN):

Women suffering from caste-based violence in one of the world’s most brutal systems of oppression are asking for global solidarity in their struggle. The world that so strongly supported the fight against apartheid must now tackle caste discrimination with the same commitment.


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