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Can Nepal women ‘untouchables’ outlive tired caste systems? « Women News Network

July 17, 2009...3:20 am

Can Nepal women ‘untouchables’ outlive tired caste systems?

- PUNITA RIMAL / correspondent - Women News Network – Fri July 17, 2009

Image: Nepal photojournalist Mikel Dunham

Image: Nepal photojournalist, Mikel Dunham

Kathmandu: Kalli Kumari B.K. is 45 years old and is a Dalit woman, an ‘untouchable.’

“On March 20, Kumari was accused of practicing witchcraft by the villagers, and was mercilessly beaten up and forced to eat her own excreta in public,” said the Asian Human Rights Commission in an urgent April 2009 appeal letter to Nepal’s leading legislators. During the incident the local police did not come to Kumari’s aide. She was victimized by a teacher from Gadi Bhanjayang Primary School in the Lalitpur District near Kathmandu.

Dalit women are denied not once but three times in Nepal society – as a woman, as a Dalit, and as a Dalit woman. Discriminated by class, caste and gender they survive in spite of an often cruel and dismissive society. In our 21st Century, in Nepal’s third millennium, if you thought that conflicts of upper-caste and lower-caste were a thing of the past you’re wrong. Stories of Dalit women cruelty are frequently found in Nepali news media. But it hasn’t changed anything. Why?

“Over 20 percent of Nepal’s population is treated as ‘untouchable.’ They are denied access to land, subject to exploitative labor and segregation, and routinely abused and even killed by ‘upper-caste’ communities that enjoy impunity. Their vulnerability is heightened in the current political climate in Nepal,” said a 2005 New York University Office of Public Affairs report.

My Reality – My Nepal

As a journalist, a Nepali, a woman and mother, I sympathize deeply with the ongoing difficult conditions of Dalit women. The sympathy is not because of their need for education, for human rights, women’s rights or social margin, but because it’s very common to see Dalit women in poor health with no access to medicine or a doctor’s advice. It’s because of their bitter hardship, their political degeneration and severe exploitation in Nepal.

In a dizzying array of 101 known castes and sub-castes in Nepal, the Hindu religion is divided into four major and vastly unequal sections: the Brahmans, the Chetri, the Vaisya and the Sudra.  Brahmans rank highest. Along with Chetris they are often wealthy, occupying the most influential positions in Nepal. Middle class Vaisyas make up many of Nepal’s small business owners who carve out a living as entrepreneurs. The unlucky Sudras are the lowest caste. But the lowest of the low in Nepal are the Dalit.

Nepal’s Dalit community is large at 20% – almost four million out of 28 million people in the country. Out of this, over 2 million women make up the Dalit population of Nepal. Rigid and unchanging, many ‘privileged’ Nepalis still view these two million ‘female creatures’ as illiterate, unemployed, landless, poor, naive, submissive, unhygienic or sick.

Limited access to clean drinking water in Dalit homes has resulted in high rates of gastro-intestinal disease among Dalits as they are forced to live in deteriorated structures with sewage seeping into their water sources. Today the cost to the public healthcare system in Nepal in the loss of Dalit lives and others has yet to be charted.

“I am a Dalit, I am a woman, I am a Dalit woman

- I am three times discriminated.”

Social and Religious Exclusion

Banned from sitting together within sight of upper-castes in temples, from fetching water at public water fountains and public sources, or even from sitting in certain teahouses or Kathmandu restaurants; Dalit women in the city remain invisible as they work in the shadows of the bustle of Kathmandu.

While they are tolerated by business owners as steady hard-working, reliable workers, women laborers, like those who are hired to paint or plaster family homes, are kept as far away as possible from the ‘respectable’ families they serve. This is strictly because they are ‘untouchable.’ The separation can be so severe that Dalit workers are not allowed inside a home for any reason.

Most of the stubborn traditionalists of Nepal society still believe that Dalits should never enter an employer’s home kitchen. They also believe that their eating utensils should never be touched by a Dalit. Because of this, some Dalits in Kathmandu are expected to eat without utensils.

“The Prime Minister (of Nepal) announced the prohibition of any kind of social discrimination based on caste, making prohibition of entry into public places including places of worship or the practice of untouchability a crime punishable by law,” stated the UN WCAR – United Nations World Conference against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

Some improvements have been made, but many things in Nepal still aren’t working. It comes down to this: Discrimination is an ugly cultural stain that won’t go away easily.

Cheap Labor an Economic Boost?

Does cheap Dalit labor actually boost the economy of Nepal? Some would say yes. While 31% of the total Nepali population lives below the national threshold of poverty, 86% of Dalits, some 3.4 million people, live far below the poverty line. Economists would say this is a disaster for a national economy.

Nepal women street sweepers, stone quarry workers, garment and crop workers work just as hard as men to earn a living, but they receive very little in return in comparison to their male counterparts. Pay is often made with commodities, not cash; an obvious advantage to many employers.

With the largest number of world brothels in neighboring Mumbai, India, it is also a well-known fact that countless Dalit girls have been lied to, coerced and cheated as they travel with high hopes outside Nepal for ‘honest’ jobs. Many have the idea of sending money home, only to find out when they arrive they have become trapped by traffickers in the Mumbai sex-industry. Many of these girls wait for years before they are ever able to escape. Some never do.

Nepal’s Educational Wall

With only half the literacy rate of Dalit men, many Dalit women are told they can never catch up, especially when compared with upper-caste Nepali women. It’s sobering that a among two million Dalit women there are only fifteen today who have graduate or postgraduate degrees. This speaks volumes to the vulnerability in the life of Dalit women. So what’s the solution?

Woman in a corner. Image: Mikel Dunham

Woman in corner. Image: Nepal Photojournalist, Mikel Dunham

The obvious answer is to provide free and easily available education to all parts of Nepal.

Public school in Nepal is not free. Parents are required to pay fees for school supplies, class registrations and extra programs. This expense leaves most poor Dalit families out of the curve, unable to send their children to school. Where money might be made available to pay an oldest son’s way, a daughter is often told she must stay home.

In 1996, Bishnu Maya Pariyar, a Dalit woman from the Gorkha Province of Western Nepal, decided to do something to help. “I never got an opportunity to get to a higher level,” said Pariyar. “People in the West don’t know how terrible the caste system is in Nepal.”

From the age of ten she had dreamed of a better life. She collected rice and millet left in the fields after harvest to help pay for an early education her father couldn’t afford. Later after many struggles, Pariyar started a program based on the microfinance concepts of Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Foundation, in an effort to help Dalit women educate themselves and their children.

“Women are learning to read and write. They are learning sexual and reproductive health. They are learning that they are not worthless and that they are human beings worthy of living,” said Bishnu recently in an interview for ODE magazine.

By combining seed money from two American women, Paniyar formed a small micro-financed group of women known today as EDWON – Empower Dalit Women of Nepal. EDWON encouraged women to meet, even against their husbands’ wishes, six days a week, two hours a day, over a six month period to learn banking, family and business management and literacy. Soon other groups began. Each group developed their own banking fund and hired a literacy teacher to teach them, as they pooled their money to buy pens, pencils and paper.

A few years later, in 1999, an American photographer, Eva Kasell, found out about Bishnu’s program and offered to sponsor her to attend college inside the US. Pariyar went on to receive a graduate degree from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts in 2006. Today her ideas to empower Dalit women have helped set in motion more than 700 secondary school scholarships for Dalit children and has helped over 1500 Dalit women.

“At the moment, (public) education in Nepal for children is only grades one to five,” said VSO Education Advisor, Peter Reid. “They plan from 2009 that it should be grades one to eight. The demands on funding for that will be huge – at the moment, 30 per cent of the education budget is provided by donors.” Donors include the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank along with nation donors like Norway, Finland, Denmark and the Department for International Development UK.

But the question is: How much of this money will help Dalit children? And will the larger Nepali society allow Dalit children to fully participate?

Climbing a Long Political Ladder

The new Nepali constitution, which now reserves a mandatory 33% seats on the national parliament for women, had a recent victory when it elected 250 women in April 2008 to the new 601-member Constituent Assembly. Of these, 2.8% made up seven elected Dalit women. This proves the tide of acceptance for Dalits in Nepal can happen, but society still has a long way to go to integrate caste struggles and issues.

“Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and all kinds of related intolerance have not gone away,” said former UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson with Nelson Mandela during the 2001 UN-WCAR conference. “We recognize that they persist in the new century and that their persistence is rooted in fear: fear of what is different, fear of the other, fear of the loss of personal security.”

‘Untouchability’ is now a legal punishable crime in Nepal. But it continues on a large scale unenforced as an everyday social happening.

As human beings, can we think what it must be like to force a woman to eat her own excreta? It goes without saying. Mary Robinson and Nelson Mandela may have it right, “While we recognize that human fear is in itself ineradicable, we maintain that its consequences are not ineradicable.”

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A very young Dalit girl crushes stone in a stone quarry in Dhading District, Nepal 2007. This video shows the clear struggle that can occur from disadvantage due to caste isolation.  How many Dalit girls and women feel that any acceptance and/or education in Nepal is beyond their reach? The answer is up to Nepali society itself.
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FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THIS TOPIC GO TO -

-       Asian Human Rights Commission – Urgent Appeals  Nepal

-       UNESCO – Forms of Social Discrimination in Nepal, June 2006

-       EDWON – Empower Dalit Women of Nepal

-       Photojournalism Essays Nepal – Mikel Dunham, 2009

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Women News Network Nepal Correspondent, Punita Rimal, is a freelance journalist who specializes in covering women’s advocacy news for the Asia-Pacific Nepal region. She is a member of Nepal women’s media group, SANCHARIKA.

2007 Pushcart Prize Nominee, Lys Anzia, has also contributed to this story. Lys is a humanitarian journalist and Editor-At-Large for WNN. Her work focuses exclusively on current worldwide conditions for global women.

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Sources for this article include IRIN Asia, UNIFEM, UNESCO Office in Kathmandu, APACHA – Asian People’s Alliance for Combating HIV&AIDS, VSO UK – Voluntary Service Overseas, New York University Office of Public Affairs, NEED magazine, EDWON.org – Empower Dalit Women of Nepal, The Advocacy Project, ODE magazine, Clark University, Photographer – Mikel Dunham  and the 2001 UN WCAR – World Conference Against Racism.

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©Women News Network – WNN 2009

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