CNN spoke to several activists from Dalit Women Fight (DWF), which campaigns for the rights of women from their community. While Riya Singh and Mohini Bala are public about their work, the names of the other activists have been changed for their protection. This story is part of CNN’s commitment to covering issues around identity, including race, gender, sexuality, religion, class and caste.

(CNN) A group of Dalit women activists in India are dedicating their lives to the dangerous task of supporting members of their community who have survived sexual abuse.

Their work usually involves a secret fact-finding mission at the village where a survivor lives in order to help her build a case, says Rekha, an activist aged 24.

“There is an element of fear,” says Rekha. “The perpetrators also live in that village, or nearby.” But working in a group helps, she says.

These women are from the Dalit community, officially also known as Scheduled Caste, traditionally positioned on the bottom rung of an ancient, hierarchical structure that can confine Indians to a particular trade, choice of marital partner and whom they mix with from the moment they are born.

Sexual violence and rape against Dalit women and girls have been brought into sharp focus, once again, after a 9-year-old girl was gang-raped and murdered in the capital of Delhi last month. Four men, including a Hindu priest, have been charged but have not yet entered a plea.

In 2012, the year of the infamous Delhi gang rape and murder of a student on a moving bus, there were almost 25,000 cases of reported rape in India, according to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. And 1,576 incidents of rape cases were against Dalit women.

Since then, reported rapes have been on the rise, with more than 32,000 recorded in 2019. For Dalit women, the numbers have more than doubled, to 3,486 incidents. But the difficulties in reporting rape in India, especially for the Dalit community, mean that the true figures may be higher.

The activists say that Dalit women bear the brunt of widespread caste discrimination which, although outlawed, is part of the fabric of Indian life and affects their daily lives.

Protesters gather in Delhi to condemn the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl last month.

Anoushka says she was gang raped at the age of 15 in 2012, the same year as the Delhi case, which garnered worldwide media attention and led to tougher anti-rape laws.

But almost 10 years later, Anoushka still hasn’t seen justice.

The 23-year-old, the eldest of seven siblings, says she was attacked by a group of upper caste men with land, money, power, and “a political connection.”

She says they demanded that she drop the case and claims her upper caste attackers paid off officials investigating her case.

A 2020 report by the non-government organization Equality Now found that sexual violence is used by dominant castes to oppress Dalit women and girls who are often denied justice because of a “prevalent culture of impunity, particularly when the perpetrators are from a dominant caste.”

A Human Rights Watch report released in 2017 also cited cases where rape survivors from lower castes can be harassed by village leaders to drop their cases against men from higher castes.

The men were acquitted and continue to live in a nearby village and issue threats, she says. Five years ago, she claims she lodged a complaint with the state high court, but nothing has come of it. CNN has not seen a copy of the complaint and has not independently verified this case. The survivor withheld her full name for her own protection.

Indian Dalit Christian and Muslim women attend a 2007 rally in New Delhi against the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes after it rejected special dispensation for non-Hindu Dalits.

“Every time I read about another case of sexual violence, I return to what happened to me… I am extremely heartbroken that nothing has changed,” she says. “Until every woman is safe in this country, no woman is.”

Dalit Women Fight reached out to her and she ended up joining the team as a frontline defender, supporting survivors of sexual violence. She asks to be referred to as a rape survivor rather than a victim, saying: “The shame is not mine.”

In their daily work, someone from a team of around 200 local volunteers from five Indian states (Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Haryana) would contact the survivor of sexual violence – whom the activists regard as their “sister” – and obtain permission to visit, Rekha explains. They may also need to stay overnight, she adds.

The activists often accompany survivors of sexual violence to police stations and to the hospital for medical examination, the results of which would be used as evidence in court. This support is needed because the police do not take their cases seriously, the activists say.

“As soon as the police officers see us, their tone changes because we are Dalit women,” says Rekha. “And they ask why we’re accompanying the survivors when they can file their own complaint.”

Rekha continues this vital work despite people from her village in the northern state of Haryana questioning whether she should be raising her voice and fighting with police officers as a woman, she says.

Although caste discrimination is outlawed, the police force looks down on Dalit women, admits a former director-general of Uttar Pradesh police, Vikram Singh.

A 2018 report of caste- and gender-based crimes by the NGO ‘Sisters for Change,” which seeks to combat violence against women and girls around the world, gave examples of cases where there was a reluctance by the Indian police to investigate crimes of sexual violence against Dalit women and girls.

“Things are changing,” Singh tells CNN, but “we have a very long way to go before… there is total equality (between) Dalit women and non-Dalit women.”

Rekha says medical examinations are also carried out insensitively “even when (the survivor is) accompanied by us.” She cites a case where hospital staff made a child rape survivor wait for a long time and were rude to her, when the family was already overwhelmed.

Rekha and two of her colleagues were also asked to leave the hospital and were told they were not allowed inside to assist the family or the survivor, she adds. CNN has not independently verified the details of this case.

Low caste women threshing corn at a village near Lucknow, northern India.

Impeded by the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic posed new challenges for DWF members.

Dalits have been sidelined from receiving care or even blamed for the virus. At the same time, people from marginalized backgrounds are more at risk of infection because of the manual work that they undertake.

Atrocities committed against Dalit women and families have also been on the rise during the pandemic, says Riya Singh, DWF’s steering committee member. The group faces “problems in reporting [cases] to the police and [reaching] survivors physically.”

While official data has yet to be released, many activists have pointed to a surge in all kinds of attacks against the Dalit community during this period. A report by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights claims that “the term social distancing further reinforced the caste exclusion and atrocities during this difficult time.”

“All funds were diverted to Covid relief, leaving little resource to carry out (the) basic procedure of reporting the crime and supporting the victim,” says Singh. “Local public transport was shut; we couldn’t reach out to the survivors since villages are distanced and cases came from different locations. We operated over the phone.”

But technology introduces its own problems. “We are (a) team of Dalit women and not all of us are equipped with digital means of communication. This whole webinar sh*t and online meetings were an added burden,” says Singh. “However (the) only good that we see in this phase is that our women learnt to use technology and attempted to grapple with new normal.”

A woman in Mumbai protests in June 2020 against caste-based sexual violence happening in different parts of the country.

Fighting challenges from within

The women are not only trying to change attitudes in society, but within their own caste too.

“Even today, I face a lot of negativity from my father,” says Anoushka, the survivor of rape. “When there is an argument, (the attack on me) comes up again and again and a lot of victim blaming and shaming, even from our neighbors.”

Mohini Bala, aged 31 and based in Delhi, works for DWF as part of the leadership team. She lost her mother when she was six years old and was raised by her father and grandfather. She says she was “scared to open her mouth” in front of her father or relatives, even “to ask for simple things.” She says she doesn’t feel Dalit women are seen as equal to men of the same caste.

She adds that schools are not always available in Dalit villages, but parents refuse to send their daughters elsewhere to study due to fear of sexual violence on their way to or from school. Bala herself says she quit school because she refused to accept the practice for Dalit students to sit on the floor, she explains.

Bala blames the oppression of Dalit women on being “refused the spaces that we should be in. We are not let out of the house, to get educated, to go out at night, to work, which builds on the notion that if a woman goes out [and something happens to her], it’s her fault,” she adds.

Neighbors and relatives question why they are working until late at night, seen as dishonorable behavior for women. This adds “another layer of oppression” to the caste and gender discrimination that the women face, she says.

Dalit women work with cow dung on the outskirts of Lucknow in 2008.

Is there hope for change?

Bala says that after about 14 years of working in the field, perceptions are changing. She adds that she is the first woman in her village to leave, get a job and study law after getting married – to a partner she chose herself, instead of one picked by her family according to tradition.

“Social media has become a powerful tool for Dalit people to share their own lived experiences,” says Bala. “Earlier, our stories were presented by people from different communities and they didn’t resonate with us.”

However, the activists also warn that the publicity angers some people from upper castes, giving rise to more atrocities. They believe that people from upper caste communities need to acknowledge the unearned privileges that were assigned to them from birth.

“It’s high time we cast out caste,” says Bala. In the meantime, “the conversation shouldn’t be a trending topic (but) it shouldn’t die down,” she says.

Rekha pays homage to a renowned Dalit politician, the late Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Affectionately known as “Baba Saheb,” meaning respected father, Ambedkar helped write the constitution of independent India in 1947.

“I get my strength from the leaders we have had in the past, Baba Saheb, and other people that we follow that we keep in our hearts.

“No matter what, these rights have been given to us by law.”

Many of the interviewees’ responses, obtained over video calls and via email, were translated from Hindi into English.