(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.