Tuesday, March 23, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Cut off by caste



Cut off by caste


Dalit women's concerns about social acceptance and specific forms of
discrimination need a nuanced approach.

Since the mid-1990s, Dalit women's groups and platforms have expressed
three concerns: impact of state policies, patriarchal bias of Dalit
movements, and upper-caste/middle-class leadership of the women's
movement. Since then concerted efforts have been made to highlight
these through common actions and other forms of engagement. These have
led to wider alliances not only at the national level but also
internationally, with other marginalised sections and communities
facing specific forms of discrimination. This approach has also led to
the inclusion of caste discrimination in various United Nations
conventions to which national governments, such as India's, are
signatory and hence need to respond with time-bound reports, action
plans and mechanisms.

On the other hand, Dalit women's concerns are now a specific but
integral component of informed interventions, be it by international
bodies such as CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms
of Discrimination against Women), the European Parliament and the
Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, where parallel
reports are presented, or by civil society platforms such as the World
Social Forum or conferences of women's groups in India, or in
discussions around the Union Budget and the 11th Plan.

More recently, climate change financing and governance mechanisms are
being addressed in terms of the differential impacts of climate change
on communities that play a key role in sectors that are most likely to
witness changes – agriculture and water resources – as well as face
historical disadvantages. Yet, the grim reality of Dalit women's lives

Social acceptance and the multilayered nature of the caste system
inform not only the social but also the economic and occupational
aspects of the lives of Dalit women. Their occupational pattern is
impacted by resource rights such as land and credit, access to
education and modern skills, and restrictions on labour mobility.
Several village studies (Thorat, 2005) have pointed to exclusion in
the hiring of labour and low wage rates, the discrimination being
greater in the case of Dalit women than men. According to the
International Labour Organisation (ILO) Report (2007) "Equality at
Work – Tackling the Challenges", with limited access to education,
training, and resources including land and credit, Dalits are
generally not considered for any work involving contact with food and
water meant for non-Dalits. They also face discrimination in a wide
range of work opportunities in both the public and private sectors.

A persistent form of discrimination in South Asia has been caste
based, the report states, pointing to the continuing practice of
Dalits being engaged in the most menial jobs of clearing excreta and
removing dead animals. Thus, social origin becomes a powerful obstacle
to equal opportunity not only in highly stratified societies but also
where social segmentation is less rigid, since action to overcome this
barrier covers a range of sectors and policy measures that need
coordination between, and the competence of, different areas of

A study (Action Aid, 2000) of 555 villages in 11 States, including
Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Gujarat, held that in 36 per
cent of the villages, Dalits were denied casual work in agriculture.
Denial of use of water sources (well, pond and tubewell) and
restrictions on access to common property resources (grazing land,
fish ponds and other resources) in 21 per cent of the villages
affected Dalit women's entitlement to medicinal and food plants and
increased their burden of household tasks. Also, Dalits were denied
the right of sale of vegetables and milk in the village cooperatives
or to private sellers.

A study of water accessibility in eight villages in Gujarat (Soni,
Jayashree, 2006) indicates the hardship and humiliation Dalit women
face in the collection of water. Dalit women wanted separate water
spots or sumps to avoid quarrels at the time of collection and over
the location of collection.

In Kanpar village, a separate tank was allocated to Dalits. After a
few years, when upper-caste women found out that Dalit women collected
more water in less time, since their number was small, they began to
push aside the Dalit women, forgetting untouchability, and turned the
water tap into a "general" tap, with Dalit women having to stand
aside. Studies conducted in the same villages in the 1970s and late
1990s had pointed to the prevalence of a similar practice of denial of
access to water resources.

Food security

Considering food security as an entitlement, the public distribution
system (PDS) and the midday meal scheme (MMS) assume significance for
Dalit women in ensuring the survival of their households and education
for children, in particular daughters. A survey (Thorat & Lee, 2010)
conducted in 531 villages in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra
Pradesh and Tamil Nadu exposed patterns of caste-based exclusion and
discrimination in the government's MMS and PDS. In Rajasthan and Tamil
Nadu, the MMS is predominantly located in dominant-caste localities.

In Uttar Pradesh, the distribution of dry grain to children of
government schools takes place in dominant-caste localities in 90 per
cent of the respondent villages, while in only 10 per cent of the
villages the distribution is conducted in Dalit localities. Access can
also be conditional and depend on the state of inter-caste power
relations. Often, Dalit children's access to the MMS is cut off by
dominant castes to assert their domination. The opposition to Dalit
cooks, mainly women, also represents a power struggle over livelihood
rights, that is, Dalit entry into new livelihood domains such as
government employment as MMS cooks at the village level.

Intrinsic to these denials and exclusions is violence, in particular
against Dalit women and girls. A study of 500 women (Irudayam,
Mangubhai, Lee, 2006) from 32 panchayat unions/blocks/mandals in 17
districts of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, and
Uttar Pradesh showed that the most frequent forms of violence included
verbal abuse (62.4 per cent), physical assault (54.8 per cent), sexual
harassment and assault (46.8 per cent), domestic violence (43 per
cent) and rape (23.2 per cent). Other forms of violence included
forced sex work, kidnapping, medical negligence, sexual exploitation
and child sexual abuse.

The multiple sites of abuse included public spaces, home, workplace,
the perpetrator's home and government offices. Those who inflict
violence included dominant-caste landlords, police and forest
officials, business persons, goondas and thugs, professionals, those
involved in politics, other dominant caste members and other Dalit
persons. The issues included Dalit women's perceived sexual
availability, rejection of sexual advances and attempt to leave forced
sex work; women breaking caste norms, accessing resources, speaking
up, and participation in religious and cultural life; arrest of family
members; and women's assertion of their rights to
land/wages/forests/common property resources, indebtedness, upward
social mobility, exercise of political rights, failure to be dutiful
wives, failure to bear sons, control over earned income, inheriting
marital property, or showing the spirit of independence.

In 40.2 per cent of the cases, women were unable to secure justice
from the law and the community. Women were also prevented from seeking
justice by the perpetrators, the police and sometimes even by family
members. Only in 1.6 per cent of the cases were women able to secure
informal form of justice. The study highlighted the need for
government policy that understood the intersection of caste and

Role in Panchayats

Another study (Irudayam, Mangubhai, Sydenham, 2009) on women's role in
panchayats in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat shows that only one-third of the
200 women researched were able to, with support, act with freedom to
win panchayat elections. Eighty-five per cent were pushed into
panchayat politics by dominant castes or husbands (as proxy), and only
one-third of the 119 panchayat presidents were able to work with
freedom, with only 35.3 per cent of them calling panchayat meetings,
31.9 per cent chairing the meetings, and 27 per cent voluntarily
signing resolutions. Only 21 per cent voluntarily authorised panchayat
payments and only 23.5 per cent approved contracts for panchayats.
Among the representatives who served as proxies, about 59 per cent
served as proxies to husband/male relatives, and others to people of
the dominant castes and political parties. Over 52.4 per cent of the
166 panchayat presidents and members attended many or all meetings,
while only half of them raised development-related issues.

In the case of over half of the 90 women who raised issues, the issues
were not discussed or approved. Dominant-caste members used abusive
language or refused to share information with Dalit women
representatives and prevented them from speaking.

Separate seating arrangements and pressure to stand up before
dominant-caste members and use separate utensils for tea or food
during meetings were the other discriminatory practices. The status of
being a proxy, fear, lack of confidence, lack of knowledge, poor level
of education, and traditional caste and gender roles were cited as
related issues that led to low political participation, according to
120 Dalit women (72.3 per cent) members.

Lack of access and entitlements to resources leads to the denial of
rights, such as the rights to livelihoods and civil rights, mainly
through varied forms of violence, thereby affecting Dalit women's
ability to protect and assert themselves. The lack of rights to
justice and protection by the law, in the context of violence and
denials that Dalit women face, reinforces the caste hierarchies and
the unequal power relations in society. Hence, addressing Dalit
women's rights remains key to building an egalitarian society.

Meera Velayudhan works as Policy Analyst (Gender and Culture) at the
Centre for Environment and Social Concerns (CECS), Ahmedabad. She has
been involved in gender studies and advocacy since the 1980s and is
currently part of women and land rights networks, both in Gujarat and
at the South Asia level.


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