New Internationalist

To transform pain to power

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Issue 396

An international conference in The Hague, Netherlands provides Dalit women an opportunity to break the silence on the ongoing violations of their rights and dignity.

In search of justice: Dalit women at the Hague

An airy tenth floor conference room in The Hague’s sparkling City Hall (automatic sunscreens slithering noiselessly down windows) seemed a lofty environment in which to hold the first International Conference on the Human Rights of Dalit Women. And some of the speechifying did little to help.

But when a group of brave Dalit women stood up before strangers to testify to the reality of their lives, the chord of raw pain that was struck would have had resonance whether in the sanitized realms of this municipal building or somewhere altogether grittier. Their life stories opened a chink through which one could see the everyday reality of Dalit people, those considered ‘low caste’ in the Indian subcontinent on account of the work they do or their descent. It’s a reality of routine discrimination and segregation which often spirals into violence perpetrated by members of the ‘higher’ castes (read more in the NI issue Combatting Caste. When one considers the numbers of people affected – estimates range from 250 to 300 million worldwide – and the long history of this systemic abuse, going back 3,000 years as a Hindu system of social stratification, one wonders why this colossal inequity hasn’t become the focus of international solidarity groups before now.

Dalit women are among the poorest of the poor and often bear the brunt of violence both from members of the dominant castes who view their bodies as ‘available’ for their use despite considering their caste ‘unclean’ and from within their own communities, where entrenched patriarchy turns them into scapegoats upon whom frustrations can be vented.

The results of a detailed study presented before the conference by the Indian group Institute of Development Education, Action and Studies revealed the true extent of this violent reality. The study, spanning five years and four Indian states and based on interviews with hundreds of Dalit women, found that 23 per cent of the Dalit women interviewed had been raped, 43 per cent had experienced domestic violence, 46.8 per cent sexual assault, 55 per cent physical assault and 62 per cent verbal abuse. Of all the cases studied only 0.6 per cent ever made it to court, due to obstruction by the police (who often harbour caste prejudices themselves) or by the dominant castes. Indeed many women simply accept that no-one is going to help them and don’t even attempt to seek justice.

One can only hope that such studies change the stance of the Indian government which has often reacted to reports of caste oppression by claiming they are ‘highly exaggerated’ and which tends to brand advocates for Dalit rights as propagandists relying on ‘anecdotal evidence’. The Indian authorities prefer instead to highlight the positive – reservations for education and jobs for Dalits in India, which cause the Government no end of agitation from the more privileged castes.

Such denial is practiced by the governments of all countries with Dalit populations – Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The UN Special Rapporteur on caste outlined how requests for governments to answer UN questionnaires about their Dalit communities met with silence. She also honestly laid out the coiling bureaucracy at the UN level which seems to have strangled action on the issue.

Which is why international conferences of this kind have a function. Recent years have seen much Dalit assertion in the political sphere in countries like India and the spread of numerous projects doing important community building work. However, it is often met with indifference by the governments concerned and by the general population at large. According to Paul Divaker, National Convenor of India’s National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, Dalit participation at the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa in 2001 brought the kind of international attention and media coverage which made many in India sit up and take notice. Today Dalit solidarity groups exist in many Western countries. But Dalit participation at the Conference also drew criticism for seeking the wrong kinds of alliances in an attempt to further their cause – with the Holy See and Zimbabwe, hardly beacons of human rights.

Ruth Manorama, a Dalit human rights activist and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, gives another reason. ‘The world is now global; no issues are local. We are talking about violence and human rights violations with impunity against Dalits for 3,000 years. If people have to get justice, then the matter needs to be taken to the international level.’ Another participant at the conference proclaimed that the human rights violation was on the scale of apartheid in South Africa, which is why pressure needs to be exerted on other countries to bring it up when they hold talks with countries with Dalit populations. To this effect a group of Dalit women were leaving soon after the conference to put their case before members of the European Parliament and the European Commission. Some days later, on 28 November, a Nepalese Dalit woman, Manju Badi gave her testimony about the extent and depth of the violence and discrimination Dalit women face in everyday life to the British House of Commons. Whether all this effort will bring more than lip service of the kind duly paid to China over their little human rights problem is anyone’s guess.

But breaking the silence on impunity is valuable of itself. In a vast country like India, atrocities against Dalits occur everyday, sickening episodes of rape and slaughter. Yet they only ever make a paragraph somewhere on an inside page, when they make the papers at all. The page is easily turned. Giving Dalit voices the space they have so long been denied could make a change.

In this spirit we present the testimony of some of the Dalit women who addressed the Hague Conference.

Hikati Devi: We can get our money back but can we get back our honour?

I am the daughter of a poor family. We worked for Yadavs [the dominant caste], in their fields. That’s how we feed our children. They thought nothing of telling me: ‘Come with me. I’ll give you gold, money. I’ll look after you.’ That was when I was young and strong. My husband said: ‘We’ll go away to some other place.’ He could not challenge them.

Some time later some criminals came and took my husband away. They took my husband beyond the village into the forest. My child was eight days old. But I carried the baby and pleaded with the criminals. ‘We are poor people, where will I find 20,000 rupees to give you? If you kill my husband, you might as well kill me and my children. For who will feed us if their father is dead?’ Finally they brought down the sum to 3,000 rupees (US$ 67) and I borrowed this money from money lenders and paid the kidnappers. A month and a half later, a group of Yadavs came shouting into our village. They raped four women and beat up the educated youth to teach them a lesson. I went to the village head and said: ‘These criminals, your friends, your people have robbed the izzat [honour] of our people. They grab the little we have earned and saved with our toil.’ He said: ‘I’ll look into it.’ The head was the brother in law of one of the rapists. The hoodlum was furious. He came to my house and abused me in the filthiest language: ‘You bitch, whore, who do you think you are, approaching my in-laws? You fancy you have become some big leader? Wait till we teach you a lesson.’

I retorted: ‘If you didn’t commit vile atrocities on women, I wouldn’t say such things.’

Soon after this a gang arrived in the night. We sent our men away into hiding for fear we would all become widows. So us women were alone in the village with our children and old folk. Two men raped me. When I screamed they put cloth into my mouth. Over years, I had saved 3,000 rupees in cash for my son’s wedding. Also a few gold trinkets for the bride. Everything was looted. In frustration, I screamed, ‘We can get our money back but can we get back our izzat?’

I told the village head, ‘I am going to the police.’ He laughed and said: ‘The courts are for the rich people.’ ‘Then where do we go?’ I asked.

I went to the police station. The Sub-Inspector chased me away. No case was registered. At that point I had already joined the organization to fight for our rights. So I had some support and therefore courage. Till today, however, no Yadav has gone to jail.

There are many more stories. We will continue fighting till we get justice.

Hajamma: All I wanted was to get married

Hajamma describes the loss of her childhood as a jogini or temple prostitute. Tradition in some parts of India demands that a Dalit girl be dedicated to the goddess at a temple, whereupon she is expected to have sex first with the priest and then with any man who desires her.

I was all of 11 years when they decided to dedicate me to the goddess. I had no idea what it meant. How could I? The older women, joiginis who’d been through this experience which had blighted their lives forever told me to run away. There was lots of advice. But what could I do? Where could an eleven year old girl run to? Where could I hide?

So the ceremony was over. I was like a goddess that day. Dressed in wedding-like finery. Flowers and shiny fake jewellery. I felt like a princess. But the old women cried. There were about 50 of them. Old joginis used and thrown out. No one to give them a meal even. Despised and humiliated.

I went back to school and everyone laughed at me. I used to love school. But now it was horrible. I felt ashamed when they jeered at me. Wanted to crawl into a hole. I stuck it out for three months, then left. I went through the jogini routine. At 13 years old everyone in the village wanted to sleep with me. At that time I was helpless. I hated it. When I tried to work elsewhere, in the fields, or in construction work near Mumbai, sooner or later the story would come out. Other workers would say: ‘Where is your husband? What does he do?’ Before long someone would tell them, ‘She’s a jogini.’ Then the men would pester me, proposition me. I had no peace. Harassment all day and often at night. ‘It’s your duty to come with me,’ they would insist. ‘After all you are a jogini.’

Finally I met the man I loved. He loved me too. We wanted to get married. But the community was furious. ‘You can’t,’ they said. ‘You are village property. The whole village will be cursed. Everyone will die.’ Then I heard the Government was giving rehabilitation packages to joginis and devadasis. So I applied for it. I joined the joginis’ organization and met Grace. She helped me fight for my rights. All I wanted was to marry the father of my two children. But the villagers threatened to beat us up. Kill us.

Grace supported me. She phoned up the District Collector, the chief of police, many government officials. All of them had to stand by to allow the wedding to take place. We got married with our two children in attendance! I cried like anything. So much tension. Such a relief when it was done.

But after the officials left people showered abuse and curses on us.

Don’t imagine it was easy. All I wanted was to get married and lead a normal life. But my struggle to do this lasted from 1992 to 1995. And I succeeded only because Grace mobilized the police and district officials to hold the wedding.

Now I fight a lot of cases for other women who suffered like me. People are afraid of us, of our organization which will fight to end the exploitation. In our state 60 per cent of joginis have stopped the profession. We have 40 per cent to fight for still. They are hidden in remote villages.

My wish? For them all to come out of the system. For all the children of joginis to have an education.

Bangaru Sridevi: Why should I deny my caste?

I was born into the safai karmachari (SK) community. My mother and grandmother used to clean shit in the public toilets. My mother had a hard life. She was married at the age of 14. My grandmother would not allow me to touch the broom.

Because I loved my mother so much I used to follow her while she worked, cleaning private latrines. She sent me away to live with relatives so I wouldn’t be subjected to the humiliation she put up with everyday. My mother was determined I would study. She saved money for me. Fought to get me a scholarship. Others told her: ‘Why make your girl study? However much she studies, she will be a sweeper.’ Once at home the broom fell down and I went to pick it up. My grandmother screamed: ‘Don’t touch that broom!’ She was obsessive about this. ‘Never touch a broom or you will be condemned to sweep latrines forever. You must never be a sweeper. You must study.’

School and college were bitter experiences. No matter how well we worked the upper caste teachers would always give us lower marks, even if we did better than the dominant caste students. Even the name of the students were divided on caste lines on the roll register.

One experience stays with me forever. During the Vinayaka Chaturthi celebrations, an SK child fell into the water during the immersion ceremony. No one would jump in to save him because he was an SK. Touching him would pollute them. So the child drowned. I’ll never forget that.

When my father came to admit me in the hostel, he told the lady who was sweeping: ‘ Look after my girl. We are from your caste, the Relly community.’ The lady told me: ‘Don’t talk to me in our language. The others will find out your caste and humiliate you.’ I was most upset. I replied: ‘I received this education from the Scheduled Castes quota, on reservation because of my caste. Why should I deny my caste and my people? I am not ashamed of our people or our language. I will not disown my background.’

The best thing that happened to me was joining the Safai Karmachari Andolan in 2004. Every year we stop scavenging in different places. We identify dry latrines and take complaints to government officials. Every year we conduct a demolition drive. So far in Andhra Pradesh 1,000 people have stopped cleaning shit. Through the Scheduled Caste Corporation we have purchased small plots of land for rehabilitation. We are working with small scale industries too. There is a cashew nut processing project in the making.

I am now the State Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, Andhra Pradesh. There are still 3,000 people engaged in cleaning shit in AP. Until every single person stops, our job will not be done.

[A note of clarification. The work Bangaru Sridevi refers to involves cleaning out pit latrines with no running water and carting away excrement by hand. A far cry from what most people think is involved in ‘cleaning a toilet’.]

Dalit women today are not merely passive victims; the current mood seems to be not one of mere acceptance, but determined to transform their pain into power.

– The Hague Declaration on the Human Rights and Dignity of Dalit Women, 21 November 2006

International Dalit Solidarity Network www.idsn.org

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