Minority rights framework can contribute to protection of rights of caste-affected communities

ritaExcerpts from the Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsá, to the United Nations Human Rights Council, on discrimination based on caste and analogous systems of inherited status:

Estimates indicate that over 250 million people suffer from caste-based discrimination worldwide. Though the highest numbers of affected communities are concentrated in South Asia, particularly India and Nepal, discrimination on the grounds of caste or analogous status is a global phenomenon and can be found in other geographical contexts, including in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific region, as well as in diaspora communities. Although the following examples are not exhaustive, they aim to be illustrative of caste-affected communities in different regions.

In India, according to official data, Dalits (referred to as “scheduled castes”) constitute more than 201 million people. This figure does not include Dalits who have converted or are born and raised within non-Hindu religious communities, such as the Dalit Muslim and Christian communities; unofficial statistics estimate that the actual number of Dalits in India is much higher.

Although official data are scarce, information from some States indicates that the number of reported crimes against Dalits is rising. For instance, data from the National Crime Records Bureau in India reveal that reported crimes against individuals from scheduled castes increased 19 per cent in 2014 from the previous year.

Entrenched caste discrimination within the criminal justice system translates into victims facing multiple obstacles at every stage of the legal process: from lodging a complaint to investigation, trial and judgement. Often, the fear of reprisal prevents victims from reporting attacks, resulting in underreporting and impunity.  Most violence against Dalits and Dalit communities is underreported and not addressed by Governments.

Due to caste prejudice or deference shown to perpetrators from higher castes, law enforcement officers may refuse to register and/or investigate cases brought by individuals from lower castes. In some instances, these officers perceive caste-based discrimination as a social issue to be solved within the community rather than a crime. Refusal to register such cases as criminal offences is justified as preserving “social harmony”.

Caste discrimination exerts a strong influence in the religious sphere. Individuals from the lowest castes may be barred from religious sites, relegated to separate religious buildings or separate spaces and buried in separate cemeteries.

Caste-based discrimination on the grounds of religion has a particular impact on women and girls. The existence of practices labelled as “religious dedication” of girls to temple deities, including the Devadasi system, constitutes a de facto form of forced prostitution and sexual slavery, mainly targeting Dalit girls.

Minority women, many of them from low-caste backgrounds, may be subjected to kidnapping and forced religious conversion. According to the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief, “such incidents seem to occur in a climate of impunity”.45 Civil society organizations have reported several cases of Dalit Hindu girls being kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam following marriage in Pakistan.

Allocation of labour on the basis of caste is one of the core pillars of caste and caste-like systems, with lower castes typically confined to “polluting”, “filthy” or “impure” tasks and occupations. This labour division is characterized by its extreme rigidity and exclusion, preventing individuals from the lowest strata from changing occupations and largely hindering their labour mobility. Attempts to challenge the established order may result in social punishment, including physical and psychological aggression and community boycotts.

In India, manual scavenging constitutes a caste-designated occupation that is mainly imposed upon Dalits, particularly Dalit women, who represent 95 per cent of manual scavengers. Despite the passing of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act in 2013, the practice reportedly persists, institutionalized through State practice, with local governments and municipalities employing manual scavengers.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Discrimination based on caste and analogous systems is a global phenomenon, affecting more than 250 million people worldwide. This serious human rights violation infringes upon the basic principles of universal human dignity and equality, as it differentiates between “inferior” and “superior” categories of individuals because of their inherited caste status. It also leads to extreme exclusion and dehumanization of caste-affected communities, who are often among the most disadvantaged populations, experience the worst socioeconomic conditions and are deprived of or severely restricted in the enjoyment of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Discrimination based on caste and analogous systems is deeply embedded in interpersonal and communal relationships in caste-affected countries. Therefore, overcoming it will require not only legal and political responses, but also community-based approaches aimed at changing the mindsets of individuals and the collective conscience of local communities. In this regard, formal and informal community education and open dialogue from an early age are essential elements to ensure that the principles of human dignity and equality generally are accepted and respected.

The Special Rapporteur acknowledges that further in-depth studies of caste-affected communities, particularly outside of South Asia, are needed in order to comprehensively assess the situation of and specific challenges facing such groups and implement adequate measures to combat caste-based discrimination that affects them. To that end, the collection of data disaggregated by, inter alia, caste, sex, ethnicity, religion and language is essential to adequately map affected groups in caste-affected countries. Data collection programmes should allow for diverse forms of self-identification and comply with international standards regarding the right to privacy.

Discrimination on the basis of caste and analogous systems is a major cause of poverty, inequality and social exclusion of affected communities. In the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, States should consider including caste-specific indicators to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals and their targets address the situation of affected groups.

The Special Rapporteur believes that relevant elements and standards emanating from the minority rights framework, including equality, non-discrimination, consultation, participation and special measures, can contribute to the protection of the rights of caste-affected communities and should be applied to combat discrimination based on caste and analogous systems.

States should adopt specific legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of caste and/or analogous systems. Existing legal frameworks to combat caste discrimination must be adequately and fully implemented and include appropriate penalties for acts of caste-based discrimination.

States should conduct awareness-raising campaigns at the national and local levels, targeting both affected communities and the wider public to sensitize them against caste discrimination and analogous forms of such discrimination. These campaigns should inform the public about the various manifestations, legal prohibitions and penalties associated with caste discrimination, and victims should be informed of their rights and available means of legal recourse to bring to light caste-based discriminatory practices and obtain redress.

Comprehensive national action plans and budgets to combat discrimination based on caste and analogous systems should be urgently developed and implemented in caste-affected countries. Plans should have clear objectives and measures in a wide range of areas, including poverty reduction strategies, employment, health, housing, education and access to basic services, including water and sanitation. They should include specific attention to the issues of caste-affected women, be developed in coordination with affected groups and local organizations working with them and be provided with sufficient funding. Their progress should be regularly monitored.

Special measures, including reservations, quota systems and/or schemes, should be put into place and enforced in specific areas, including employment, education, and public and political institutions, in order to guarantee the effective participation and representation of affected communities in public life.

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to caste discrimination, as they suffer from multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination owing to both their gender and unprivileged caste status. They are disproportionately subjected to dire human rights violations, including violence and, particularly, sexual violence, trafficking, early and/or forced marriage and harmful traditional practices. They face obstacles in accessing justice and redress and are excluded or relegated to a secondary or subordinate role in decision-making processes. Caste-affected States should urgently take robust action to eradicate such violations through, inter alia, the enactment and effective implementation of specific legislation and the adoption of special measures, policies and programmes to address the entrenched situation of marginalization and exclusion experienced by women and girls owing to their caste status.


Download full report HERE


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