Since the mid-1990s, Dalit womens groups and platforms have expressed three concerns: impact of state policies, patriarchal bias of Dalit movements, and upper-caste/middle-class leadership of the womens 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 Indias, are signatory and hence need to respond with time-bound reports, action plans and mechanisms.
On the other hand, Dalit womens 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 womens 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 womens lives persists.
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 government.
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 womens 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.
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 governments 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 childrens 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 perpetrators 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 womens 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 womens 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 gender.
Another study (Irudayam, Mangubhai, Sydenham, 2009) on womens 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 womens 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 womens 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.