Dalit women's aspirations brought home impact of 'double discrimination'
Emily Esplen visited a community in Dhaka where inspiring community
organisers are showing change is possible
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 11 January 2011 17.50 GMT
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When I met members of the Dalit Women's Forum in Dhaka last month,
they told me about the changes they want to see in their lives and
communities. They want their daughters to go to school and stay in
school. They want privacy and security when bathing in communal areas.
They want health care and clean water. They want to earn their own
money and not be dependent on their husbands and fathers.
These aspirations brought home to me the true meaning of "double
discrimination". Dalit women find themselves on the lowest rung of the
ladder in a rigid social hierarchy in which Dalits are classed as
Over 260 million people worldwide continue to suffer from caste
discrimination, one of the most severe and forgotten human rights
abuses that still persists in several countries. In Bangladesh, there
are around 5 million Dalits living in extreme poverty, deprived of
adequate housing, healthcare, education, sanitation and transport.
Dalits are literally separated from the rest of the population. They
are confined to living in so-called "colonies" that are perennially
flooded. They are restricted to working in jobs such as sweeping
streets and collecting rubbish and human waste.
Staggering as these realities are, we cannot talk about the human
rights of Dalit people without bringing up women's rights that are
also denied to Dalit women. Multiple layers of disadvantage have left
more than 96% of Dalit women in Dhaka illiterate - a majority of Dalit
girls drop out of school due to harassment and economic pressures.
Most are unemployed, as the limited jobs available to Dalits go to the
men. Cases of rape and violent crimes committed against Dalit women
are often ignored by police.
Inspiring community organisers such as Moni Rani Das, coordinator and
founder of the Dalit Women's Forum, remind us that change is possible.
Moni was the first Dalit girl to go to school in her community due to
support from her father, who later insisted that she marry when she
was 12. "After years of being a housewife, I realised I could not stay
home any longer and ignore the problems that Dalit women like myself
faced," she told me.
After organising within initially resistant communities and lobbying
dismissive public authorities, Moni says that the lives of Dalit women
are now changing, and the Bangladeshi government is beginning to
listen. The first step is empowering the very community one wishes to
transform. "We now go outside our houses and it is an incredible
precedent for Dalit women to earn their own money. This is the first
time that we have understood that the lives we lived before were not
human lives. "
Last month Moni received the One World Action/Sternberg Award in
recognition of her work promoting human rights and her success in
tackling the extreme poverty facing Dalit women. She is among the many
incredible Dalit women who have struggled against discrimination and
violence, but won't give up until their government and society take
They are also calling on the international community to play their
part, and while in London, Moni met with UK parliamentarians and
policymakers to raise awareness of the issue of caste discrimination
and to endorse the United Nations Draft Guidelines and Principles to
Eliminate Discrimination Based on Work and Descent.
The extreme poverty of Dalits stems directly from their exclusion and
discrimination within political, economic and civic life.
International donors that support development initiatives need to
recognise that the poorest citizens in the developing world are also
the most excluded. Their empowerment will enable them to demand and
access jobs, education and public services, to be active agents of
their own development and to live a life of dignity.
Emily Esplen is the Women's Rights Co-ordinator for One World Action.
One World Action supports over 40 partner organisations in Asia, Latin
America and Africa, including the Bangladesh Dalit Rights Movement and
the Dalit Women's Forum.
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