Can Nepal women ‘untouchables’ outlive tired caste systems?

PUNITA RIMAL / correspondent – WNN Features

Image: Nepal photojournalist Mikel Dunham
Image: Nepal photojournalist, Mikel Dunham

(WNN) 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?

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