Situation of Dalit women and girls in South Asia: Need for greater attention by international community, documentation

dalit womenBy Manjula Pradeep*

When the entire world’s focus is on extreme forms of violence and atrocities happening against Dalit girls and women in India, it is has become crucial to lay down in front of the international community that all this is not just happening in India but also in other caste-affected countries of South Asia – though most of the time things simply go unreported by the media. The caste issue has been debated in the UN for over a decade, and it has received a lot of support and solidarity from UN mechanisms and member states, despite the stand taken by the Government of India that it is an internal problem and it should not to be discussed in the international forum.

It is important to not just look at the issues of caste-based discrimination as a global problem but to understand issues of us Dalit women. We are a social category representing a large population of almost 120 million in South Asia, who have been historically discriminated against on the basis of our multiple identities rooted in structural inequalities relating to caste system imposed on us ever since we were born.

While looking at the issues of Dalit women in the South Asian context, mainly in countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, there is a need to highlight issues and aspects relating to the kind of discrimination and violence being faced by Dalit women, which intersect with gender, caste, class and religion. Most of the time discrimination is hidden in the ambit of caste, as caste rules over the other identities of Dalit women, which makes them more vulnerable than any other marginalized women in the South Asian region and the world. Hence, there is a need for high-level advocacy by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of the United Nations (UN) and other UN agencies for the elimination of caste-based discrimination and caste-based violence against women and girls.

While looking at the current socio-economic situation of Dalit women and girls, one has to recognize the historical and political context of each of the caste-affected countries. While India continues to boast about its affirmative action and the laws enacted for the protection of the rights of Dalits and women, there has been little effort to analyze the situation of Dalit women. Caste vis-a-vis gender is ignored, and there is no framework on the basis of which a reformative action could be developed in order to review legislations, policies and programmes, and bring amendments to them.

The Government of Nepal closely follows India in framing legislations despite its political instability. It has come up with an anti-discrimination law which came into force in the end of 2011. Despite the protection guaranteed by the governments of India and Nepal, the condition of Dalit women and girls is getting worse, which needs immediate attention by all the states and the international community.

Dalits in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka form a very small minority and have not been recognized in their constitution, leading to no safeguards and protective mechanism for them, leading to a situation where the plight of Dalit women in these countries most of the time goes unnoticed – it remains hidden, unseen and neglected.  Although the Government of Bangladesh recently initiated the process to draft a legislation to recognize Dalits as a constituency, much more needs to be done in these three caste-affected countries.

Parallels could be developed between the situation of Dalit women in India and Nepal, as these two countries have a higher proportion of Dalit population. Caste discrimination has been recognised as a form of discrimination in the constitution of these two countries. Some characteristics of caste-based violence against Dalit women are similar in all caste-affected countries, though some of them are more prominent in some countries. Stripping, parading naked and forced temple prostitution in India are the forms of violence against Dalit women which differ from other caste-affected countries. Forced conversion of Dalit girls in Pakistan is a pattern of violence against Dalit women, which is unique in the context of caste-based violence in South Asia.

Violence against Dalit women and girls is used as a tool by the dominant communities to shame the Dalit communities. Forms of violence on Dalit women and girls, which are often reported, are rape, gang rape, murder and mass attack in most caste-affected countries in South Asia, with the exception of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka does not have any system of reporting cases of violence and discrimination against Dalit girls and women, making their situation more vulnerable and questionable.  There is a need to carry out a regional study in caste-affected countries by OHCHR and UN Women.

Landlessness, dependency and poverty make Dalit women and girls more vulnerable than other women. Due to lack of educational opportunities, majority of Dalit women work in the unorganized sector, which includes cotton ginning, textile industry, tea and rubber plantation, quarry and brick kiln, etc. Most of these industries have been set up in collaboration with  multinational corporations which impact the labour rights of Dalit women and girls, as they are trapped into an exploitative situation due to lack of implementation of laws protecting their labour rights.

Bonded labour is another form of caste-based slavery which the Dalit community is forced and trapped into due to poverty and lack of economic and livelihood opportunities due to discrimination. Many Dalit women and girls who are wives and daughters of these bonded labourers become victims of sexual exploitation, which is never reported due to the fear of landlords. Increasing number of Dalit girls are getting trapped into sexual trafficking, whose epicentre is in India. Young Dalit girls from Nepal and Bangladesh are illegally sold and bought to the brothels of India, making their lives miserable and vulnerable to sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV.

Dalit girls and women are being victimized as their families are into other forms of forced labour too – as seen in Haliya in Nepal. They are forced into caste-based occupations and inhuman practices, which are most degrading and unacceptable across the globe — one these happens to be manual handling of human excrement, which is called manual scavenging in India. Dalit girls and women clean the human excrement with bare hands and in return are paid a very a low wage – they are often offered leftover of food eaten by non-Dalits, or handful of grains.

Migration of Dalit families in search of livelihood also makes the condition of Dalit women and girls more vulnerable, as they are forced to live in the open fields without any protection, leading to sexual abuse. Dalits’ assertion and demand to be equal citizens often results into social ostracization by the dominant castes, which many times results in forced eviction of Dalit families leading to difficult times for young Dalit women and girls. Lack of opportunities for Dalit women and girls has created a situation of shrinking of space to live a decent life, weakening their voice to fight for their rights for justice, dignity and equality.

Lack of documentation of the issues of Dalit girls in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, points to the need for international attention, support and solidarity. The visibility of the issues of Dalit women and girls in India and Nepal signifies the need for further attention by international human rights mechanisms. The visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women to India and Bangladesh did provide a space to raise the concerns of Dalit women and girls in international fora putting due pressure on respective states.

But much more needs to be done by the international community and the UN to address the concerns of Dalit women and girls in the South Asian region. A beginning should be made by ensuring that the governments of caste-affected countries recognize the situation of Dalits, especially Dalit women and girls, and to create mechanisms to protect their rights.

*Director, Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad. Presentation made at the Geneva United Nations Human Rights Council side-event on June 17, 2014

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