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The plight of dalit women: it’s time to end the caste system both in India and the UK

17 July 2013 | By Anand Kumar 

Caste-based discrimination remains a wide-spread practice across the globe. There are 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.

Manual scavenging

Seema, 30, is a manual scavenger in India - a degrading practice imposed upon certain groups of people, where non-flusing toilets are cleaned out by hand with a small brush and basket. 

What is the caste system?

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.

Additional sub-caste discrimination further divides lower castes into numerous sub-castes, making the caste system rather complex.

Dalits: India's 'untouchables'

In India, ‘untouchables’ as they were formerly known, have chosen to be known as dalits, meaning ‘broken people’.

Officially named ‘scheduled castes (SCs)’, they constitute more than 16% of India’s population.

Dalits face daily discrimination, including segregation in villages and schools; limited access to roads, public spaces, temples and public services such as healthcare and safe drinking water; and difficulties in access to, and ownership of, land.

Caste-based discrimination outlawed

Caste-based 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.

However, unfortunately most of this legislation is poorly implemented and the country’s dalits continue to suffer discrimination and exclusion.

Discrimination in the UK

‘There should be no place in our day and age for the degrading practises of caste and discrimination and untouchability.’

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 class and gender.’

Forced and bonded labour

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.

Manual scavenging

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 (approximately one UK penny), and are often forced to work in dangerous conditions – sometimes life-threatening.

Triple discrimination

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.

Rape and abuse of young dalit girls

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 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.

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.

Support and protection

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.


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Anand's blog was also published on The Independent website.


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About the author

Anand Kumar, Christian Aid India

Anand Kumar is Christian Aid's India representative.

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