Dalit women are placed at the very bottom of South Asia’s caste, class and gender hierarchies. They suffer multiple forms of discrimination – as Dalits, as poor, and as women. The caste system declares Dalit women to be intrinsically impure and ‘untouchable‘, which sanctions social exclusion and exploitation. The vast majority of Dalit women are impoverished; they are landless wage labourers; and they lack access to basic resources. They are subjugated by patriarchal structures, both in the general community and within their own family. Violence and inhuman treatment, such as sexual assault, rape, and naked parading, serve as a social mechanism to maintain Dalit women’s subordinate position in society. They are targeted by dominant castes as a way of humiliating entire Dalit communities. Human rights abuses against Dalit women are mostly committed with impunity. Police personnel often neglect or deny Dalit women of their right to seek legal and judicial aid. In many cases, the judiciary fails to enforce the laws that protect Dalit women from discrimination.
In India, Dalits – officially known as Scheduled Castes – constitute one sixth of the population. They are consistently discriminated against despite a constitutional ban on ‘untouchability’, and the enactment of specific legislations including the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Of the country’s almost 100 million Dalit women, approximately three fourths live in rural areas where they face systematic oppression, social exclusion, and direct and structural violence from within their own community as well as from ‘upper’ castes.
Even as we are in the 21st millennium, caste discrimination, an age-old practice that dehumanizes and perpetuates a cruel form of discrimination continues to be practiced. India where the practice is rampant despite the existence of a legislation to stop this, 160 million Dalits of which 49.96% are women continue to suffer discrimination. The discrimination that Dalit women are subjected to is similar to racial discrimination, where the former is discriminated and treated as untouchable due to descent, for being born into a particular community, while, the latter face discrimination due to color. The caste system declares Dalit women as ‘impure’ and therefore untouchable and hence socially excluded. This is a complete negation and violation of women’s human rights. We urge this august body to pay special attention to this issue and come up with recommendations to eradicate the caste system. Dalit women are thrice discriminated, treated as untouchables and as outcastes, due to their caste, face gender discrimination being women and finally economic impoverishment due to unequal wage disparity, with low or underpaid labour.
According to the Hindu caste hierarchy, there are four castes namely the Brahmins ( priestly caste), the Kshatriya ( warriors), the Vaishyas ( traders and the Shudras ( menial task workers). Below this four tier caste ladder is another rung, who are called the untouchables(Panchamas). Among the untouchables, the status of women is further eroded and closely linked to the concept of purity. This is what the rigid, fundamentalist Hindu promotes through continuation of caste system, imposing the Brahminical values to maintain the caste system’ The creation of a number of Hindu religious books including the Manusmriti, Atharva Vedas, Vishnu smriti, and many others like these and their strict compliance by the Brahmans (upper priestly hindu caste), led to a society in which equality between men and women was far from existent . Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, an architect of the Indian constitution, also makes it very clear in his article titled “The rise and fall of Hindu woman” that the root cause of suffering for women in India are these so called Hindu religious books.
Of the total population, Dalit women constitute 16.3% of which 18% women live in rural areas. The women perform hard domestic labour which is unpaid and as agricultural labourers or casual labourers they continue to toil under the burning sun, with no protection or benefits that labour laws should provide, since majority of these women are in the unorganized sector. They do not even get the minimum wages that the state/country has specified, since they are unable to organize and demand for decent wage. Dalit women undertake manual, low paying, tedious, time consuming work. They earn less than one U.S. Dollar.
The women have to walk miles to fetch drinking water and often the water is not safe and potable. Dalit hamlets are usually at the end of the main village or in the village outskirts. They live in small huts and even the few who may have slightly better housing are devoid of basic amenities such as sanitation, light and safe and clean drinking water.
The women work on construction sites, carrying heavy loads of construction material. They also work in brick kilns for long hours, as casual labourers to lay roads with hot tar in the burning sun, without sandals and any other protective gear. The women have to walk miles not just for collecting water but also fuel and fodder for their domestic chores. Dalit women are victims of bonded labour, they are abused, sexually exploited by other caste, humiliated and are easy targets of insult.
A study conducted come up with some shocking facts about the work of dalit women. What is horrifying is that Dalit women work more than bullocks and men. Bullocks and men work in a hectare in a year for 1064 hours and 1202, respectively, while women work for more than 3485 hours. The caste and patriarchal norms legitimise the poor economic conditions of Dalit women. She has to work to survive. She is powerless and has neither access nor control over resources. Manual scavenging continues as an occupation in India and most of the manual scavengers is Dalit women. The women are subjected to do this humiliating and degrading work, which further results in discrimination and social exclusion.
The health condition of Dalit women is alarming with high incidence of maternal mortality and infant mortality. This is due to the fact that Dalit women are unable to access health care services. Due to denial and sub standard healthcare services the life expectancy of Dalit women is as low as 50 years. The infant mortality rate is 90 / 1.000. The sex ratio of Dalit women is 922 / 1000 compared to 927 / 1000 for rest of the population in India. Due to poverty, Dalit women are malnourished and anemic. Early marriage and multiple child births causes the women to suffer from prolapsed uterus. Continuous bending and working while sowing and harvesting in agricultural causes acute back pain. They also develop skin irritation and allergy due to excessive use of pesticides.
As they work barefoot and the soil is damp and wet, the women develop soars between their toes. Due to lack of awareness and medical care, many of them suffer from reproductive health complications, including STDs and cervical cancer with white discharges. Dalit women are easy target for the Government Birth Control Schemes. Women face forced sterilization, are tested for the use of new invasive hormonal contraception like guinea pigs. They are forced to use long-acting, hormonally dangerous contraceptives. They do not get basic medical facilities. Pregnant Dalit women receive discriminatory treatment in hospitals and there are instances where doctors have refused to conduct the delivery of Dalit women.
A large majority of the illiterate population comprise of Dalit women with 76.24% of Dalit women being illiterate. The girl dropout rate among Dalit families is increasing with girl-children are forced to work as child laborers, More and more girl children from Dalit communities are school drop-outs and working as child labourers. Dalit women are illiterate because they have less access to education which is an inherent part of the caste system. There are not enough secure facilities for education, taking care of small children and they join the adults to add to the income of the family.
Dalit girl children are involved mostly in hazardous work like Beedi making, working in match factories and in the fire-works industry. Traditionally dowry, which is not a practice of the Dalits has now became a bane. Due to Sanskritisation by the caste Hindus, the Dalits have begun to emulate the customs and rituals of the hindus. Dowry is one such custom. The Dalit families have succumbed to the societal pressures, added to this the fear of sending the girls to schools which are usually located in distant places deprive them of education.
Girl children are deprived of access to education as belonging to economically weak families, they are unable to pursue their education. They do not get uniforms, school books, special fees, and have to walk long distances to reach their school. This is a limiting factor for dalit children.
Rajasthan Dalit social worker gangraped –January 24th ,2006
In a chilling reminder of the Bhanwari Devi case, a Rajasthan anganwadi worker was allegedly gangraped by her supervisors during a state sponsored training session. Instead of helping the 25 year old Dalit woman, the police tried to hush up the incident, declaring her mentally unstable and packing her off to a psychiatric clinic. According to the FIR the woman, an anganwadisahyogini, was raped by three of her supervisors after her female supervisor took her to a room at the training center in Karauli, some 150 km from Jaipur. The incident took place on the night of December 30th,2005. Her husband was told three days later that she had been admitted to a hospital after a ‘mental breakdown’. We brought her back to Karauli but the police refused to file our case. When they finally lodged an FIR on January 20, the SP again sent her with a constable to Jaipur to get her admitted to the SMS Hospital’s psychiatric center. Her husband Ram NiwasMeena said that SP B K Pande denied the charge: ‘We did not send her to the psychiatric center. We have arrested two accused and are hunting for the other two’. Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, who visited her in hospital today, said a probe will be held.
Dalit women tortured in Jail –
Punjab Three Dalit women from Muktsar district in Punjab have accused the police of torturing them, including administering electric shock to their “private parts” and confining them illegally. Talking to reporters at the BJP headquarters in Chandigarh on Friday, AmarjitKarur, VirpalKaur and Rarni alleged they were picked up by the police after they rejected the overtures of two drug traffickers to join the flesh trade. Amarjit alleged she and Virpal were detained for five days at the police station. “We were tortured in the presence of the SHO. We were stripped and electric shock administered to our private parts,” she said, adding that she suffered a miscarriage due to this. Virpal said their families were silenced with threats. Both claimed they were let off without registration of any complaint or FIR after five days. They alleged the SHO was acting at the behest of the drug traffickers. Rani’s claims were similar. The district BJP unit arent’t buying the DSP’s claim that the women were picket up for trafficking poppy husk and plan to approach the Punjab Human Rights Commission, National Women’s Commission and SC/ST Commission.
Many Dalit Non-Government Organizations (NGO‘s), both in India and abroad, have been involved in raising the plight of India’s 250 million untouchables. One of the most important tasks of these Dalit NGO’s is to bring the plight of Dalit people to the attention of the International community and to document and publicize human right violations. As the poorest of the poor, Dalit women lack the means and the opportunity to defend themselves at home or to make their problems known outside of rural India. Many Dalit women have formed NGO’s through which they collectively fight against abuse from the upper classes. Such Dalit women abandon tears and embrace the shield of confidence in 154 the hope of equality. The courage, struggle, and persistence of today’s Dalit women against suppression, exploitation and torture has the power to ensure that the future generations will not have to face the bleak reality Dalits have faced for the past two thousand years. The caste system is truly a crippling disease to approximately 250 million Dalits in India today .Since its roots are embedded in the Hindu religious scriptures, it seems this disease has no cure, but every voice raised against caste-based discrimination and suppression through Dalit Organizations will turn this from a losing battle to one of victory in which every Dalit will have equal rights, access to education, and a chance to succeed and prosper. Many of the Dalit NGO’s are involved in establishing schools, scholarships, and basic supplements to Dalits in the rural parts of India. NGO’s such as the Ambedkar Centre for Peace and Justice and the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights are involved in bringing the plight of the Dalit people to the attention of the international community and to document and publicize human rights abuse. The longterm objectives are to enfranchise Dalits as full citizens of their society and eliminate caste-based discriminations.
Article Written By- Vasudha Tewari
(HRDI Work From Home Internship)