Poorest of the poor, Dalits have suffered centuries of slavery
"We suffer because of the circumstances of our birth. The reason for our marginalization is nothing more than being subject to the caste system," says Gopal Damai, a resident of Lamatar, a village just 10 km away from the capital city of Kathmandu.
Anyone within the "Damai" caste is regarded as a Dalit. According to the National Dalit Commission (NDC), 22 communities in Nepal have been designated as Dalit.
Access to public places is denied them. So-called upper caste people do not buy cow’s milk milked by dalits. It is regarded as impure. A Dalit lady marrying above her caste has to endure a lifetime of calumnies and public harassment. Members of so-called upper castes avoid bodily contact with Dalits. Their religion regards it as an extreme defilement.
Dalits are barred from equal access to schools, hospitals, courts, and almost all the public places where so-called upper caste people are permitted. They are not allowed to use village common wells nor to worship in the temples. Dalits are renowned for their technical skills. The temple that prohibits their presence is mostly the product of their skilled hands.
Dalit girls are even forced into prostitution. Dalit youths are effectively compelled into becoming rebels.
Owing to caste-based discrimination and lacking access to markets, Dalits in Nepal are forced to forego the traditional occupations. Indebtedness to the so-called upper castes, incurred by one’s ancestors, is inherited by the upcoming generation of Dalits. A child inherits the debts of his parents, so that poverty increases generation-to-generation.
Poverty prevents Dalit children from attending school. Those who do attend are discouraged by the prevailing caste-related discrimination. There are separate desks and benches for the Dalit students in a class. The national literacy rate averages 54 percent, but overall Dalit literacy is only 35 percent.
No public prosecutor or judge can be a Dalit, nor do they have any presence in the civil service. Dalits face a basic hurdle when seeking legal redress for crimes committed against them. The police refuse to register complaints by Dalits, perversely making threats against them.
The 2004 UNDP Human Development Report quotes 44 percent of Dalits as being landless in arable regions of Nepal, compared to 15 percent in hilly regions. Nepal’s southern region boasts massive areas of arable land.
Most Dalits labor on someone else’s land. Owners pay a minimum wage ranging from $0.25-$0.30 for 18 hours of hard work a day, whereas at least $2 per day is needed to meet daily living expenses.
So-called upper-caste groups have strong material incentives to maintain this state of affairs. Skills are generally dominated by the social and religious classes. Owing to upper-caste oppressiveness, Dalits often have no choice but to perform the most undesirable labor and to accept extremely low wages.
Dalit women face sexual humiliation and assaults by landowners. Dalit women stay in their villages, whereas Dalit men go to urban areas for better opportunities. Hence, Dalit women have to work more hours for lower wages.
One fourth of Nepal’s population faces caste-based discrimination. This is a major problem in South Asia. In India 160 million people suffer similar caste-based discrimination.
The government has budgeted Rs. 1.6 billion (US$1 = Rs.70) for overall development of the Dalits by 2007. Owing to political instability this allocation exists only on paper, and no progress is made. Multilateral and bilateral agencies and NGOs are working on the task of empowering Dalit communities throughout the nation.
The Dalit NGO Federation of Nepal aims to mainstream Dalits into the socio-economic and political process through a strategy of integration and inclusion. Integration would be a stage without hierarchies and with the full integration of Dalits into mainstream Nepalese society.
Inclusion would mean the removal of institutional barriers and the enhancement of incentives for access to development opportunities, an outside-in and top-down phenomenon that has relational and structural elements.
Dalits are educationally deprived, economically exploited, socially excluded, politically neglected, and religiously oppressed. The caste system has social consequences in Nepal.
The world Dalit is derived from the Sanskrit meaning "crushed and downtrodden." They are referred to as "untouchables" or "outcasts" in popular Hindu philosophy.
Rupesh Silwal, Ohmynews.com
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