Re-birth of Untouchability- Dalit women during COVID- 19


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by Ali Saha    18 October 2020


The article discusses the violation of Dalit women’s rights during COVID-19. Pertaining to the ideological hegemony of caste-gender nexus, the pandemic has created another layer of oppression for the Dalit women who were already victims of the triple oppressions of poverty, being female and being female Dalits. Deriving from various examples and previous studies on Dalit women, this article concludes that in a country where the state is headed by a Dalit President, the idea of “lack of fit” haunts the Dalit women and without recourse, they continue to suffer exclusion and exploitation, at a more aggravated level during COVID 19.

Keywords: India, Minorities, Dalit Women, COVID-19, Marginalisation, Discrimination.

In India, the women ‘s bodies, and sexuality choices are hugely controlled by the ideological hegemony of caste-gender nexus. The control over a woman’s body plays a crucial role in maintaining the caste and patriarchal-based power and hierarchy. Although I belong to a relatively privileged- a middle-class upper-caste family, I have occasionally felt the brunt of casteism from the ones above us. Often the members of the society deploy one’s character and experiences as a reflection of their caste identity. Moreover, as a scholar of caste and discrimination, I have a keen interest in the impact of a pandemic on the members of the lowest caste- the Dalits, especially the Dalit women. While this practice of discriminating people and idealizing them based on their non-fluid caste identity is politically banned, it remains ingrained in the minds of the casteist population. In fact, the pandemic has redefined the caste-gender structures opening Dalit women up to extreme vulnerability.

The patriarchal system allows women subjugation, the caste system further supports systematic discrimination of the 96 million Dalit women of India. COVID 19 requires extreme hygiene measures. Far from the idea of sanity, the essential nature of their jobs as well as poverty forces Dalit women to continue to do the traditional-menial jobs of cremating dead bodies, scavenging, and cleaning open sewage without protection. This puts women at a higher risk of getting the disease. The disgust and fear and desperation to hygiene to safeguard against coronavirus has further fuelled deliberate distancing of the vulnerable Dalit women by the other population. Their plight is worsened with limited access to healthcare facilities. These limitations are a result of- poverty, gender differences, getting permission to go to the hospital facility, and the idea of ‘Dalits as impure/unclean’.

The spending on health care in a Dalit household is decided by gender dynamics. 2018 UN report suggests that the average death age of Dalit women is far below than average of Dalit men or non-Dalit women. Even if they are admitted to the hospital, the benevolent paternalism of local health providers creates significant barriers for the Dalit women in accessing proper effective treatment. The disparate treatment against the Dalit women is governed by the casteist mindset prevailing in the institutions funded by dominant upper-class bodies.  2015 National Family Health Survey suggested that 70.4 % of Dalit women reported problems with accessing healthcare. With the current situation, where the hospitals are overwhelmed by more patients, fewer healthcare workers, and a casteist mindset- it is obvious that the Healthcare Delivery, diagnosis and treatment, and access to healthcare facilities would be governed by caste and gender stereotypes. While the Dalits lack substantial agency to voice themselves, neither the media nor the government pays any head to these disparities.

The scripture Manusmriti validates Dalit women’s oppression and hence, the Dalit women rape- an instrument for oppression, has been normalised and excused. Following this, the women have been repeatedly physically and verbally abused, sexually harassed, raped, and forced into prostitution. These inherent discriminations and violations of the Dalit women have manifested in diverse forms during COVID-19. The 2014 National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights suggests that approximately one-fourth of Dalit women were being raped, of which many have been victimised multiple times. While COVID-19 leaves for lesser opportunities for interaction in the public space, Dalit rapes have become prevalent in the workspace, at home, and in medical institutions. Between February 2020 to August 2020, the media reported several caste-based atrocities of which rapes consist of approximately 10% of the total number of cases. And a major part of them occurred in the hospitals. According to media- a Dalit girl, also a COVID-19 patient was raped multiple times by the doctor and hospital staff members during her course of treatment.  Not to say that the above data and stories include only the reported cases which are far less than the real numbers. Here it should be added that the women were not just victims of rape or child sexual abuse, but were victims of honour killing, to female foeticide and infanticide, domestic violence, and lynching. On one hand, the exclusion of Dalit men and women from mainstream society leaves them unaware of their basic human rights, and hence this ignorance is continuously exploited by the Non-Dalits, the police, and the judiciary. On the other hand, even if a case is registered or the authorities questioned, the judiciary’s own caste and gender bias lead to an acquittal.

The pandemic has created another layer of oppression for the Dalit women who were already victims of the triple oppressions of poverty, being female and being female Dalits.  Violation of their human rights is not space confined but occurs in the public, the government spaces, the perpetrator’s home, or even their own homes. The pandemic can be said to have re-asserted untouchability. While social distancing is crucial to avoid the spread of the disease, it enlarges the rift between the Dalits and Non-Dalit members. That is, it further distances the already distanced. This rift has deepened to a level where the Dalit even fails to reach out for the basic necessities- such as masks, sanitizers, groceries. The Dalits who were anyways known as the untouchables are now facing the burden of double-untouchability.

In a mediated era where media acts as the fourth pillar of Indian democracy, they take advantage of the Dalit marginalisation rather than raising a voice which aggravates the anti-Dalit mindset. The newsagencies either ignore or report the rapes and discriminatory acts in a sensationalistic rather than in a humanistic manner. Following the casteist and inherited-hierarchical notions of the society, the newspaper reports can be often seen to sanction the discrimination and violence towards them. Even social media fails to bring any change to their lives. While the campaign #Blacklivesmatter created an international uproar, the campaign #Dalitlivesmatter and #Dalitwomenfight failed to resonate in a country with the second-largest population. The latter two were crushed under the institutionalised racism, genderism, and casteism. The discrimination and ignorance reflect from the narrative where a minor Dalit girl’s rape which was of the same magnitude as Nirbhaya (implicated on a non-Dalit) case, had gathered less storm in public due to its Dalit status.

Dalit men are dominant and have more power than women. Hence, although the traditional taboos are the same for Dalit men and Dalit women, Dalit women are exploited more often and at multiple levels. The pandemic has been infecting the population irrespective of their caste, class, gender, but gives a way to re-assert the biases and prejudice and to further marginalise the Dalits, especially the Dalit women. Previous research has claimed that inter-caste disparities exist even in the most egalitarian societies. Following this, it can be argued that the COVID-19 has significantly influenced the systemic oppression of the Dalit women in all sections of society. While the governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to advance various agendas under the flimsy pretext of protecting their citizens from COVID-19, the inter-caste disparities and oppression of the Dalit women continue to affect a large part of the population.

While the ideological and media discrimination continues on the surface, the ignorance of Dalit women’s sanity and healthcare leave them vulnerable to health risks and diseases. The government has implemented certain affirmative actions to safeguard the interests of the Dalit women, but instead, this has only reasserted the stigma of incompetence leading to reaffirmation and reinforcement of sex stereotypes. In a country where the state is headed by a Dalit President, the idea of “lack of fit” haunts the Dalit women and without recourse, they continue to suffer exclusion and exploitation, at a more aggravated level during COVID 19.