Dalit women face multiple forms of discrimination in South Asia

Kalavanti Raja is the first Dalit woman in Pakistan to receive a master’s degree.

Kalavanti Raja of Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network described the plight of Pakistani Dalit women, whose caste (“untouchable”), religion (Hindu) and gender make them most vulnerable to all kinds of injustices in a Muslim society. They are frequent victims of brutality and sexual violence but no cases are filed against the perpetrators because all law enforcing agencies in Pakistan are controlled by “feudal lords who kill their own women in the name of honor”.

Envisioning New Nepal: Dynamics of Caste, Identity and Inclusion of Dalits

Conference Report – – Godavari Village Resort – June 20-22, 2010 – Organized by Samata Foundation Nepal Supported by Open Society Institute (OSI) Enabling State Programme, an initiative of UKAid, DFID, Centre for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD), UNDP

The conference was co-organized by India-China Institute, New School University, New York, the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, US, Nepal Dalit Info Group, Canada and Canada Forum Nepal, Canada in association with International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), Denmark and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research South Asian Coordination Office, Kathmandu. Feminist Dalit Organization, Jagaran Media Centre, Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organization, Jana Utthan Pratisthan, Dalit Welfare Organization and Dalit NGO Federation Nepal were also involved in coordinating this event.

Acknowledgements – This report is the fruit of the efforts, contributions and support of many people and organizations. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Open OSI, CCD/UNDP and ESP/UKaid DFID for the funds they have provided us to organize this grand event. We would like to specially thank the organizing committee of the conference for their support throughout. The dedication and hard work of dalit organizations all over Nepal were highly appreciated. Among those who provided important strategic advice and suggestions were the board of directors of Samata Foundation therefore, we would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to each member of the board of directors of Samata Foundation. A series of papers were presented during the conference which provided us important insights to our thinking and the development of ideas and would like to thank those presenters for sharing their research. We would also like to acknowledge the contribution of the national experts who participated in our overall conference. We would like to thank all the participants from Nepal and across the world who provided wide ranging insights and observations on the issues of dalits. The translation and interpretation facilities were benefited from the help and support of UNDP. A team at Samata Foundation for their hard work and dedication throughout the conference should be highly appreciated. We thank all of those involved directly or indirectly in guiding our efforts during the conference.

The conference on “Envisioning New Nepal: Dynamics of Caste, Identity and Inclusion of Dalits”, which opened at Yak and Yeti Hotel and continued at Godavari Resort from 20-22 June, 2010, was the first of its kind held in Nepal. The event brought together scholars, political leaders including CA members and practitioners/activists working on Dalits across South Asia. Such a gathering of minds was long overdue given that the Dalit movement in Nepal began six decades ago. One of the organizers noted that the belated conference was exciting but also sad as it revealed the lack of interest in Dalit issues among Nepali intellectuals. The event aimed to help fill that gap by creating dialogue between Dalit and non-Dalit political leaders, the academic world and the general public for making Nepali society more inclusive of Dalits and more responsive to the Dalit agenda. It also aimed to provide an opportunity for academics working on Dalits across Asia to set agendas for future collaboration.

The papers presented at the conference covered important issues concerning Dalits such as identity and politics, human rights and dignity, the development paradox, constitution building, federalism, affirmative action and the effects of globalization on the Dalit movement. The informative and thought-provoking presentations were followed by discussions in which participants raised critical questions and offered a wide range of perspectives. Discussions were particularly enriched by the fact that a large number of participants and panelists belonged to the Dalit community and possessed insights drawn from living experience. The conference also allowed Dalit political leaders including CA members, activists and civil society members to articulate their perspectives on the past, present and future of Nepali politics and the restructuring of the Nepali state.

A comprehensive summary of all the presentations or the discussion they inspired is beyond the scope of this report. However, it attempts to present an overview highlighting the major themes that emerged from the conference. Although the report tries to incorporate the key arguments of all the panelists, it does not offer definitive conclusions that all the participants might agree with. The papers presented at the conference will be published in book form, which will serve as a more detailed record of this historic event. It is hoped that the book will advance scholarship and help strengthen policy on the Dalits of South Asia, in particular Nepal.


The following passage by the Dalit writer and leader Aahuti tries to encapsulate the experience of Dalithood: “Of all the forms of social discrimination practiced across the world, ‘untouchability’ is the most blatant rejection of your humanity. This problem, which may seem normal from a distance, is devastating when you experience it. Being a Dalit does not only mean being denied your rights. It also means being part of a psychologically damaging process that teaches you to accept dehumanization. In this process a Dalit begins to see every right s/he gets as ‘kindness’ from the ‘upper’ castes, while the latter see any right granted to Dalits as an act of benevolence on their part.”

Within this common experience of Dalithood, how do Dalits distinguish themselves from one another? How does class, caste, geographic location or gender affect the formation of Dalit identity? Do Dalits belong to the same cultural category as “high” caste Hindus, or have they evolved a distinct identity? These were some of the questions raised with regards to Dalit identity.


Panelists from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan made enlightening presentations on Dalits in their respective countries.

Dalits in Pakistan: A “Religious Minority”?

Dalit Women

Dalit women, Madhesi Dalit women in particular, face multiple forms of discrimination both within their community and society at large. Sexual and domestic violence against Dalit women are rampant across South Asia. Only recently three Dalit women including a child were raped and killed by Nepal Army personnel in Bardiya National Park. No action was taken against the perpetrators although voices were raised from several quarters.

Kalavanti Raja is the first Dalit woman in Pakistan to receive a master’s degree. Ms. Raja’s presentation illuminated the complex problem of being a Dalit in a Muslim country and how the state’s lumping Dalits together with the Hindu religious minority has further disadvantaged them.

There are about 2.5 million Dalits in Pakistan, and they are referred to as Scheduled Castes. Following Jinnah’s death in 1948, the state has remained in the hands of ‘feudal lords, religious bigots and the military’, who are completely apathetic to the plight of Dalits. The national constitution does not even mention Scheduled Castes, let alone contain provisions for them.

For 62 years Pakistan has been controlled by ten feudal families. To change this situation it is important to first change the electoral system. There is no separate consideration for Dalits in the election, but as religious minorities they have been offered three ways of entering the parliament in different periods of time: a) religious minority quotas in parliament b) separate elections c) the right to vote in general elections. However, none of these channels could ensure inclusion of Dalits in the state structure.

Religious minority quotas in the parliament brought no representation of Dalits as all the seats were bought by rich Hindu businessmen. This despite the fact that Dalits make up 75 percent of the Hindu minority in Pakistan. Separate elections finally allowed Dalits to obtain 3 out of the 4 Hindu minority seats on the strength of their population, but since it was ‘separate election’, Dalits continued to be excluded from the mainstream. In the 2008 election, all religious minorities were allowed to vote in the general elections, and 10 seats were reserved for them in the parliament. But as usual the Hindu elite captured these seats. Until March 2009 the parliament did not have a single Dalit; only under pressure from certain quarters was one Dalit placed as senator. He is the first Dalit senator in the history of Pakistan. Moreover, under the 2008 election, a few incentives like the 6 percent employment quota for Scheduled Castes have been abolished with the argument that all such castes are religious minorities.

Unlike in Nepal or India, Dalits in Pakistan are absent from the government’s or political parties’ agenda. Their categorization as a ‘Hindu religious minority’ has ignored their identity as Dalits and failed to address the multiple layers of discrimination they face in society. Pak Dalit Solidarity Network (PDSN), which is still in its formative stage, is now making efforts to sensitize and mobilize Dalits.

– It is hoped that the astonishing depth and breadth of perspectives shared at the conference will invigorate debate on Dalits and spur the concerned people including policymakers into action. Rather than producing a list of unanimous recommendations, the conference served as a platform for raising difficult questions, sharing new insights and helping the participants confirm or revise their points of view. However, some observations and suggestions that were frequently highlighted by the presenters and participants are summarized below:

Dalits are not a homogeneous group but a common experience of Dalithood unites them. It is as important to recognize their common voice as it is to distinguish them according to sub-group, gender, region and class.

Madhesi Dalits and Dalit women constitute the most disadvantaged groups even within the Dalit community. Targeted, context-specific and bottom-up interventions are necessary for ensuring Dalits’ access to education, health and employment.

Dalits’ lack of access to land resource is a major underlying cause of their social and economic marginalization. Absence of political will and the elite’s resistance to land reform remains one of the biggest hurdles to improving Dalits’ condition. Land redistribution with priority to landless Dalits is the need of the hour.

Dalits’ marginalization, although rooted in religion and culture, is primarily a political problem requiring political solutions. Political empowerment is the key to ensuring their rights in every sphere of society.

Majority of the political parties are not genuinely committed to Dalits’ agenda even though they cannot openly oppose it at this historic juncture. Political leaders who have been raised with feudal values need to undergo a radical transformation of mindset with regards to Dalits.

The failure to build a common Dalit front has formed a serious obstacle to advancing the Dalit movement. The most intractable causes behind this are party-led factionalism and Dalit leaders’ subservience to their party leaders.

Class and identity are not wholly extricable. There is a correlation between caste/ethnicity and economic status; therefore, the exclusion of Dalits should not be viewed through an isolated lens of class or caste.

Globalization has had a dual impact on Dalits. Whereas neoliberal market forces continue to exacerbate Dalits’ poverty in rural Nepal, Dalits’ movement from the villages to the urban sphere in and outside the country has helped to liberate them from grinding poverty and stigmas attached to their caste.

The question of funding a social movement is fraught with contradictions. While the weakness of internal support mechanisms makes donor dependency almost inescapable, even the most successful of donor-funded initiatives tend to be suspect and face the challenge of sustainability. The support and commitment of the government, policymakers and local actors is crucial to advance and sustain the Dalit movement.

Dalits in Nepal have much to learn from the Dalit movement in India, where Dalit mainstreaming and leadership has come a long way since Ambedkar first demanded Dalit rights from the state.

Non-Dalits also have a historical responsibility for building a just and inclusive society. Privileged groups need to understand that special provisions for Dalits (affirmative action, reservations, compensation) are a first step towards righting the historical injustices meted out to Dalits. The elite’s resentment will only hinder the creation of an equitable society.

One thought on “Dalit women face multiple forms of discrimination in South Asia”

  1. Yes they do face a lot of problems, the descrimination Is totally unjustified. People should do something in their power to help these women in any way possible. They work really hard to feed their family, I work with an NGO (http://www.jaagore.com/project/buy-cow-dalit-woman) which helps dalit women by giving them cows to empower them.

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