“That’s when I found out why my family’s house was so close to the trash dumpsite of the village, and why it was so separated from houses of the dominant castes,” Mashaal said.
India is home to more than 100 million Dalit women, according to the 2011 national census. The Dalit, sometimes referred to as "untouchables," have long been considered the lowest rung of the Indian caste system, despite the fact that India's 1950 constitution ostensibly abolished untouchability.
Mashaal, now 27, said she faced harassment from students and teachers alike in her village of Badarpur because of her background. She said teachers threw her schoolbag out of class and refused to check her homework, while students sang rhymes taunting her and other Dalit children.
But as she grew up, the rhymes increasingly turned into threats of sexual violence, Mashaal told Refinery29. By the age of 16, she began attending Dalit-community solidarity meetings to examine how she could protect herself.
For Dalit victims of sexual violence, Marshaal said, response from police officers is often "How can you have been raped? You’re a Dalit — touching you would make anyone spiritually impure."
And Mashaal was far from alone. A study by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights found that more than half of Dalit women had suffered physical assault. More than 46% have suffered sexual harassment. Twenty-three percent have said they had been raped.