"It's a fantastic campaign, and it's really given women a voice. But these are women who are heard anyway"
By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, Dec 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A global social media campaign that recounts tales of sexual harassment and assault excludes some of India's most vulnerable women who are abused and exploited on a daily basis and have no means of being heard, activists said.
The campaign, with the hashtag #metoo, quickly gathered momentum in the wake of sexual assault claims against movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
In India, it has triggered scrutiny of abuse of women working in the private sector, and a rare diktat to the Bollywood film industry to keep women safe.
But it has not sparked conversations about poor women outside of the formal economy like those trafficked into prostitution or lower caste Dalit women - often the targets of attacks, activists said.
"It's a fantastic campaign, and it's really given women a voice. But these are women who are heard anyway," said Ruchira Gupta, founder of women's charity Apne Aap Women Worldwide.
"Where are the voices of prostituted women? They are the most abused and exploited, but when they are called sex workers, implying they are doing this out of choice, then how can they say, 'me too'?"
There are an estimated 20 million commercial sex workers in India, of whom 16 million women and girls are victims of sex trafficking, according to campaigners.
Many come from poor rural regions and are lured with the promise of good jobs or marriage, but end up sold to brothels.
Efforts by politicians to enable them to report the crime or seek help are often misguided, as they usually involve nothing more than a helpline or a mobile app, Gupta said.
"When they are raped and locked up, where do these women have a mobile phone, let alone the ability to download an app?" she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The #metoo campaign also excludes Dalit women who are often victims of attacks by upper-caste Hindus and security forces, said Sujatha Gidla, a Dalit writer whose recent memoir chronicles the discrimination she faced in southern India.
Nearly 41,000 crimes against lower-caste individuals were recorded in India last year, nearly five every hour, according to official data. Most of these crimes were assaults and rapes of women, it showed.
But the statistics do not reflect the true extent of the crimes, as many of them go unreported for fear of reprisal, activists say.
More women have taken to the streets in India to protest sexual assault since the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in Delhi in 2012. But attention is focused on cities, while assaults in rural areas are largely ignored, Gidla said.
"Dalit women in small towns and villages are routinely assaulted and raped. Where is the #metoo campaign for them?"
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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