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  • Mar 14, 2013

Ashish Singh writes from personal and professional experience to highlight the problem of caste in India, focusing on the issue of Dalit women's status in society. Which problems are facing Dalit women in India today? And how can we work to change them?  

So, we met, outside the dining hall in the old campus of my university. We were going to take a walk within the campus, as we used to do after dinners. She was coming with one of her friends to the dining hall, a smile on my face and a simple hello in response from her. I went up to her and asked her name. We met again, I guess on our way to the classroom or in the basketball court. We met, smiled, said hello and asked the usual stuff we talk about in India several times. I invited her to join me for a cup of tea at the mid-night hour. It has been a tradition of my university to go to Tapri – a small shop on the backside of the old campus. The trip to Tapri was full of discussions, debates, emotional fluctuations, unknown-sudden laughter. We continued meeting with friends, without friends. It went on for days, weeks, months.

We were reaching there when that feeling was just a glance away, a warm embracing dance away. It was all glowing, then one day, while I was opening the door of my room a friend mentioned about her caste. She was a Dalit.

The caste system in India is structured as a four-tiered socio-economic-political system determined by familial line. The system is classified in four varnas prescribing occupation along with the social status; in sinking order: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants) and Sudra (servants). Untouchables, or Dalits, were the people so low in social status that they were not included in the caste system; outcasts.

The practice of untouchability is forbidden by law in the Indian constitution, but the social stigma, discrimination and social exclusion of Dalits remains both on an institutional and personal level even today. They are suffering from the double burden of being poor and being Dalits. For Dalit women, the situation is even worse, as they suffer from the triple oppressions of being poor, being female and being female Dalits. Dalit women number 80.517 million, or approximately 48 per cent of the total Dalit population, 16 per cent of the total female population and 8 per cent of the total Indian population.

 All available data on the status of Dalit women’s rights to education, health and work participation, indicates that they are subjected to lower levels of enjoyment of these rights as compared both to non-Dalit women and men, and Dalit men. There exists, however, very little current data regarding women’s experiences of descent-based violence and discrimination – the available data is classified either by gender or caste, but does not include both factors and the relations between them. Caste based untouchability, discrimination and violence is extensively researched and documented, but mostly with referring to Dalits as one single group, not illuminating the specific intersection between descent, occupation-based identity and gender identity in the experiences of Dalit women.

Dalit women are, like their male counterparts, subordinated by poverty and caste, but at the same time they are also subjected to the patriarchal power that makes them vulnerable to exploitation and domination not only by upper castes, but also by Dalit men. These women suffer from double disability in the Indian society. The first disability of being female is doubled with the caste tag over their head. In all states, an overwhelming majority of Dalit women work outside of their homes – mostly with labour connected to agriculture, which is known for exceptionally low wages.

In addition to working outside, these women also have the sole responsibility of running the household; attending to domestic chores as cooking and cleaning, raising children, fetching water, collecting fuel and fodder and tending livestock or land. In the lives of Dalit women, two aspects are of specific concern; sexualized form of oppression, and gendered labour that provides occupations in which Dalit women are even more vulnerable to Untouchability than Dalit men. They are also exposed to discrimination and violence while executing the domestic chores, and especially while herding livestock alone or at public places as by the water source.

Skjermbilde 2013-03-14 kl. 10.21.30Dalit women do not own and control property such as cultivable land, and have no inheritance rights. Their only alternative source of livelihood at their disposition is all day long engagement in less paid causal labour, but also from which earnings, the husbands tend to forcefully want to control. In extreme cases, this results into wife battering due to women’s refusal to accept men’s demand to share the earnings, coupled with abuses, accusations and counter abuses /accusations leading to domestic violence, which is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. Dalit women face the paradox of being socially regarded as Untouchable and polluted, but still being exploited in the most intimate spheres of their existence. Every day, those women confront wide spectra of challenges – having to manage the social stigma of being Untouchable as well as being dependent on their oppressors – upper castes and in some cases even Dalit men – both in economical and gendered relations.

Social discrimination does play a part in influencing women’s under- and unemployment rates. A study conducted in three states in 2005, showed that higher caste-women had a larger probability of being employed than women from lower castes. Further, the study showed that Dalit women had a maximum of 148 days of employment during a year, while women from higher castes had an average level of 290 days of employment per year. Dalit women are also predominantly working within the agricultural sector – approximately 57 per cent – as compared to 29 per cent of higher caste-women.

The report states further that

the labour market is among the most important sites of gender inequality. Gender equality is critical in any attempt to reduce poverty, and that women’s access to the labour market is equivalent with overall greater economic equality. Caste and networks related to caste are important in searching for and finding employment. Precisely the importance of these networks plays a critical role in restricting occupational mobility for women. Gender inequality is the reason behind women getting unequal pay for equal work. Even within the poor, women contribute a major part of the disposable income, as men spend more on personal comforts and women generally tend to prioritize ensuring welfare for the entire family. Therefore, empowerment of women is acclaimed as a poverty reduction measure, and this is done by creating employment that is focused on women. It is worth noting that despite a period of dramatic economic growth the female participation in the labour force has stagnated from 1983-2005, especially counting the rural areas.

Employment in itself does not necessarily lead to empowerment of women, because the market relations are so nuanced that a strive for gender equality must go beyond just creating employment – forms of employment that seek to break down the occupational biases between the genders should also be given equal attention from policy makers. Education could be an important factor in the rising of caste and gender inequality. Women from scheduled casts have higher work participation rates than men. The majority of women in India, 79 per cent, work in agriculture, which is known for exceptionally low wages. Scholars like Ruwanpura argue that this could be a reflection of economic deprivation and poverty, because scheduled caste women were forced to accept any kind of employment and labour wages, simply to survive. It is a clear depiction of how caste, class and gender converge in the process of making the groups more exposed to facing multiple- discrimination. They are socially denied the rights each citizen are entitled to, making the battle for fair working conditions not only about wages, but human dignity.

She was a Dalit. She reached to the university, because of her academic excellence. Dalits are lowest in the caste hierarchy. Maybe we would not have had any relationship, maybe we would have just remained friends, or maybe it was just for the course of study we stayed in Mumbai. But, those eyes of lots of students and small-small jokes and some random laughter on the differences shattered it all.

We are not in touch anymore. Some memories linger still, somehow.

I know society and its values won over us.

Ashish Singh is from Uttar Pradesh, India. He holds a bachelors in Journalism, and two Masters degrees in Social Entrepreneurship and Social Welfare and Health Policy. Read more about Ashish here

This article has also been published in Radikal Portal, under the Norwegian title ‘Fordommene Vant Over Oss’. 

The featured photograph shows Mayawati, a Dalit woman from the Bahujan Samaj Party, which  won the state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 with majority and she became the chief minister of the region for the fourth time. At present, she is a Member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha (the Upper House of the Parliament in India). To many, Mayawati still represents the ‘untouchables’ struggle towards justice and the women’s rights movement.


2 thoughts on “Dalit Women and Untouchability in India

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