Dalit women stuck at bottom of India’s social ladder

Dalit women stuck at bottom of India’s social ladder

Symposium told that constitutional and legal provisions have done nothing to prevent discrimination

Dalit women stuck at bottom of India's social ladder
A book titled ‘Dalit Women in Social Conflict: The Case of Haryana’ was released during the national symposium on Dalit women in New Delhi on Oct. 10. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj/ucanews)

Bijay Kumar Minj, New Delhi India October 11, 2019

Dalit women continue to face violence and discrimination in India even though they have been given constitutional rights.

Church leaders and activists heard at a national symposium that Dalit women’s social and economic status had not improved despite the constitution declaring the practice of untouchability in any form as illegal and the introduction of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Prevention Act 1989.

“Despite such constitutional and legal provisions, there are frequent incidents of atrocities and violence against Dalits which indicate an underlying prevalence of social conflict in rural India,” Father Denzil Fernandes, director of the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute (ISI) in New Delhi, told the conference.

“Dalits are placed at the lowest strata of Indian society in terms of caste and class. Being the inferior sex, Dalit women are not only placed at the bottom of hierarchy in terms of caste and class but also gender.

“They carry the burden of representing community’s dignity and pay for it by facing violence. Lack of adequate resources exposes them to violence, which is a result of social conflict. As Dalit assertion for their rights increases, the upper caste reacts by curbing it and Dalit women become the easy target.”

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The Oct. 10-11 national symposium in New Delhi was organized by the ISI’s department of women’s studies with the theme “Social Harmony and Justice: Perspectives of Dalit Women.”

Dalits, or untouchables, are the lowest caste within Hindu society. Huge numbers of Dalits have converted to Christianity and Islam over the decades, though in reality the religions offer limited protection from societal prejudice.

The word Dalit means “trampled upon” in Sanskrit and refers to all groups once considered untouchable and outside the four-tier Hindu caste system. Government data shows 201 million of India’s 1.2 billion people belong to this socially deprived group. Some 60 percent of India’s 25 million Christians are of Dalit and tribal origin.

India is home to more than 80 million Dalit women, who form about 17 percent of India’s female population.

As the lowest on the caste ladder, Dalits have traditionally experienced social exclusion from economic, civil, cultural and political rights. Women from this community suffer discrimination based on their gender and caste identity, resulting in economic deprivation.

Father Denzil Fernandes, director of the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute, speaks at the symposium in New Delhi. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj/ucanews)

Notions of purity and pollution 

Amit Thorat, an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told the symposium that the mindset prevalent among upper castes is that people belonging to lower castes are physically or ritually unclean, and therefore they should not be allowed to enter the kitchen (a sacred and clean place) or use utensils that household members use for consuming food.

“Low-caste domestic workers employed in homes are usually allowed to mop or swipe the floor or clean the bathrooms but not allowed to cook food or wash the kitchen utensils. It has also been found that many, if not all, the workers performing such tasks belong to the lower castes. This practice is an example of the notions of purity and pollution,” Thorat said.

“The notions of purity and pollution are ideas which, despite the spread of education and the advent of modern lifestyles, tend to stick and prey on our religious and social insecurities. Social change is invariably slow and necessitates a change in the political, economic, social and cultural environment. This, in turn, requires the social psychology of the masses to transform over time.

“Unless people’s beliefs and mindset change, untouchability will exist in our society and it will not change.”

Upasana Borthakur, an assistant professor in sociology at Galgotias University in Uttar Pradesh, said gender socialization, patriarchy and the caste system are considered the key dimensions of social exclusion of Dalit women in India.

“The problems of Dalit women are unique in many ways and they suffer from the triple burden of gender bias, caste discrimination and economic deprivation,” Borthakur said.

“If we want these women to come up in society, we have to change the mindset of the patriarchy system and think about inclusion of all regardless of caste, creed, religion and gender,” Borthakur said.

Archana Sinha, who heads the department of women’s studies at the ISI, said there is a huge myth around the notion of “all women are equal and exploited equally” but in reality their social set-up completely accounts for the intensity and areas of exploitation.

“Disparities in social status of women in general and Dalit women in particular are a matter of profound disgrace and a cause of great concern, and there is an urgent need to remove this menace from society in the near future” Sinha said. 

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