Thursday, May 13, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Nepal’s Trailblazing Dalit Feminist

Nepal's Trailblazing Dalit Feminist
Written by Claire Colley
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Source: The New Internationalist

Durga SobDurga Sob was just 10 when she realized she was from the
Dalit, or 'untouchable', class of Nepal: 'I drank from a water pot
that other people used, and by sharing this water, I'd made it
'unclean'. I was screamed at and chased away. I told my mother and she
said: "God made us Dalit, that's just the way it is." It was then I
knew the pain of being a Dalit, and had to do something to change
things.' The injustices experienced during her childhood in the remote
village of Silgadi in western Nepal inspired Durga to found the
Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO) to fight against caste and gender

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia and Dalits represent
around 20 per cent of the population. The term 'Dalit', chosen by the
community itself, means 'broken people', and although caste
discrimination was outlawed in 1963, its practice remains widespread.
Dalits are considered polluting and suffer an apartheid of
segregation: '[We] are often denied proper housing, access to
healthcare and other public services, like use of water taps and
temples,' says Durga. 'Dalit women suffer a triple oppression, and are
at the bottom of the pile. As women they're second-class citizens
anyway, but as Dalits they're subjected to social exclusion, and as
the poorest group in Nepal, they experience chronic poverty.' Indeed,
more than 90 per cent of Dalit women live below the poverty line and
life expectancy is just 51 years, as opposed to a national average of

Education is also denied to many Dalits. Around 80 per cent of Dalit
women are illiterate and the first milestone Durga achieved was being
admitted to school: 'My mother, a wonderful woman, encouraged me,
despite everyone saying she was wasting her money.' Dalit girls
traditionally work at home and are married young. Despite continual
discrimination and bullying, Durga completed school by the age of 16.
Realizing that she was equal to her classmates, and again breaking
Dalit rank, she started teaching English to other Dalits: 'I felt it
was no good if I were the only one who was educated; I had to educate
others. I would bring all the girls to my home and teach them. After
this, many went to school and completed their education.'

Moving to Kathmandu when she was 19 years old, Durga started working
for ActionAid and it was here that she met the US feminist Robin
Morgan and told her about the situation for Dalit women. Although
there were many projects which were working to empower Nepali women,
none had been initiated to address Dalit women's specific issues.
Morgan encouraged Durga to form FEDO in 1994. The early days were
difficult: 'We needed seven Dalit women on the board before we could
register FEDO and it was hard to find educated and committed Dalit
women, they were so oppressed.' Moreover, women in urban areas did not
wish to expose themselves as Dalit. Durga also experienced prejudice
from other women activists: 'High caste women would not accept us and
I was routinely excluded.'

Durga was, however, used to chronic discrimination and continued to
strive for inclusion: 'Initially, FEDO was small and focused on
informal education and income-generation programmes. We began our work
in the Lalitput district and held literacy classes for 50 elderly
women. These were successful, so later we focused on formal education,
health, sanitation, advocacy and awareness.' FEDO now works in 45
districts in Nepal and has 40,000 members. Some 3,000 Dalit children
were sent to school after FEDO's school enrolment campaign. In
addition, 50 Dalit health workers have been trained, 5,000 women have
benefited from microfinance programmes, and 2,000 Dalit women's groups
have been established.

Nepal is, however, a country in recovery after 10 years of a civil war
which ended in 2007, and because of their perceived association with
the Maoist guerrillas, the Dalit community bore the brunt of the
violence. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to all forms of
gender violence, including domestic abuse, trafficking for
prostitution and rape as a weapon of war. In response to this, FEDO
began working in partnership with the British-based organization
Womankind to establish healing and support units for Dalit women
survivors of violence. There are now four centres and almost 1,800
women have benefited: 'The healing centres have seen an overwhelming
response and for the first time, Dalit women have been able to break
the taboo of talking about the violence they've experienced. Many now
understand that violence doesn't have to be a part of their everyday

Also crucial to empowerment is education around rights, and FEDO makes
use of CEDAW, the international bill of rights for women, as
legislative support: 'We provide training for women about how to file
cases to police to ensure that they have equal access to justice,'
explains Durga. 'Women often immediately practise what they have
learnt and CEDAW is seen as a basis on which to fight back against
oppression. This is a vast shift in perception for Dalit women.'

The current post-war situation in Nepal, as well as being a time of
challenge, also represents an opportunity for the community. Following
the 2006 Peace Agreement, political parties are currently formulating
a new constitution for the country: 'Up until now, in terms of
participation and representation, there have been no Dalit women in
positions of power. However, this is changing: 25 Dalit women have
been elected as members of the Constituent Assembly and this is one my
happiest achievements. The constitution-making process is a unique
opportunity to ensure that the constitution will guarantee equality
and, for the first time in Nepali history, Dalit women are represented
in political processes.' Durga's pride is palpable: 'It's taken 15
years, and it's still early days, but FEDO has created an environment
where Dalit women have started to see themselves as respectable

Website: Feminist Dalit Organization


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