The plight of dalit women: Why it’s time to end the caste system both in India and the UK
Anand Kumar is the Indian Representative for Christian Aid
Caste-based discrimination remains a wide-spread practice across the globe, with an estimated 260 million people considered to be ‘outcastes’ (dalits) worldwide. This deep-rooted discrimination causes marginalisation, social and economic exclusion, severely poor work conditions, and limited access to basic services such as water, sanitation and employment.
In many countries, including India, caste systems divide people into many social groups (castes) where their rights are determined by birth and are fixed. Unequal and hierarchical, those at the top enjoy comfortable social positions, while those at the bottom struggle without any rights. This unjust system operates on principles of purity and pollution, influenced by the notion that dalits are impure. In India, ‘untouchables’ as they are formerly known, have chosen to be known as dalits, meaning ‘broken people’. Officially named ‘scheduled castes (SCs)’, they constitute beyond 16 per cent of India’s population.
Dalits face daily discrimination, including segregation in villages and schools; limitation to roads, public spaces and temples; limited access to public services such as health care and access to safe drinking water; and difficulties in access to, and ownership of, land.
And although such discrimination has been outlawed in India since 1955 – consequently leading to the introduction of the Prevention of Atrocities Against SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs) Act 1989, as well as safeguards in education, public employment and legislature within the Indian Constitution – unfortunately most of this legislation is poorly implemented and the country’s dalits continue to suffer discrimination and exclusion. Additional sub-caste discrimination further divides lower castes into numerous sub-castes, making the caste system rather complex.
I was therefore overjoyed to hear UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay call upon member states to address caste-based discrimination and global human rights violations that affect dalit women worldwide, as well as the prohibition of caste-based discrimination in the UK being added to existing legislation.
Speaking at the 23rd session of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, Navi Pillay said: ‘There should be no place in our day and age for the degrading practises of caste and discrimination and untouchability, further amplified by the intersection of discrimination based on caste and gender.’
Historically, dalits have no employment opportunities other than forced and bonded labour (where their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan), depending on wage labour. They are at the mercy of dominant caste landlords just to make ends meet, consequently keeping them in a vicious cycle of poverty. Although, thanks to changes in the Indian constitution to protect their rights, a small number of dalits have emerged as middle class and some as successful entrepreneurs, fighting against all social and economic barriers.
In spite of India’s strong economic growth and development, it remains home to the practice of manual scavenging, the removal of human excrement from dry toilets (there are 794,390 dry latrines nationwide) and sewers using basic tools like thin boards, buckets and baskets lined with sacking, carried on the head. Although abolished by law in India in 1993, it continues today, with the majority of workers being dalit women. They’re paid meagre wages, sometimes just one rupee per day, and are forced to work in often dangerous conditions – sometimes life-threatening.
Dalit women and girls are especially vulnerable, experiencing not only the discrimination of caste, but also of class and gender – ‘triple discrimination’ as it’s called here in India – leaving them in a vicious cycle of marginalisation and exploitation. National crime statistics indicate an average of over 1,000 rape cases against dalit women are reported annually, the highest of any social group.
Many dalit girls are also dedicated as Devadasi or Jogini. Once reported to be a sacred, religious practice, the Devadesi or Jogini dedication of girls to temples has morphed into an organised system of abuse of young dalit girls by men from dominant castes. These girls are prohibited from marrying and are stigmatised by their community. Children born to them have to suffer discrimination as they don’t have a recognised father.
The continuous effect of these practices, and the sexual abuse of dalit women, is that dalits and other ‘untouchable’ groups are kept powerless, separate and unequal. Although there are occasional small flickers of hope, with the election of a female dalit leader as Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh state and another prominent dalit woman as Speaker of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian Parliament). But this is not sufficient when compared with the status of millions of fellow dalit women.
Christian Aid’s work in India aims to address this injustice that keeps people in poverty through no fault of their own. Partner organisations such as Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) work to eradicate manual scavenging in India, and support the rehabilitation of manual scavengers in dignified alternative occupations. Others are helping socially excluded communities to get non-discriminatory access to welfare programmes implemented by the state, as well as working to protect dalits from caste-based atrocities and exclusion.
Caste-based discrimination cannot be seen as just a problem of dalits, or a problem of any specific country. It is a human rights problem affecting millions of people in India, South Asia or wherever the Indian diaspora live worldwide, including the UK. The fight against the caste system is crucial for equality, and needs global support in order to promote equality and social justice for everyone.Tagged in: caste, Devadasi, India, India rape, India women's rights, Jogini, untouchables, women's rights
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