Dalit women face three-fold discrimination from birth

Hetal Shah – WNN Opinion

Dalit women
Communities Rising, an education advocacy organization operating in seven rural villages in India, provides out of school programs in underserved rural villages of the Villupuram District, of Tamil Nadu, India. The programs focus on literacy, math, English and computer skills with emphasis placed on education for India’s Dalits and especially girls. Image: Kara Newhouse

(WNN) Opinion Bhuj, India:  There are two Indias, and Dalit women have learned to survive in both these worlds.  Take a look at two related but opposing headlines in The Hindu last month.

January 5, 2012: Dalit woman sarpanch emerges as poster girl for gender issues

January 11, 2012:  Dalit woman paraded naked in Chavan’s hometown

The former is a story of a community leader working to create a model village in Bikaner, Rajasthan by addressing gender inequalities.  Her story is even more powerful due to the fact that she did not attain her seat as part of the reservation quota for Dalit women in the legislature.  Under Tara Devi’s leadership, maternal and infant mortality has decreased significantly, there have been no cases of girls dropping out of school, and there are 1,014 girls to every 982 boys (this ratio can not be found even in the progressive state of Kerala).

The latter is a story of an upper class girl eloping with a Dalit boy.  The mother of the boy was then stripped naked and beaten in her hometown by the girl’s powerful family.  Cases like this one are all too common despite the 1989 passage of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Five people, including the girl’s parents, were arrested, but incidents of violence against Dalits continue to be commonplace.

Dalits, previously known as Untouchables, constitute one-fourth of the Indian population.  They consist of many different castes with varying practices, beliefs, and languages. The government of India refers to Dalits as Scheduled Castes, and has ensured their rights within the Constitution. Yet the rights enshrined on a piece of paper are not an indication of facts on the ground.

This is especially true for Dalit women, who simply for being born as such, are discriminated three-fold by society.  They face caste discrimination as they are outside the caste system altogether, they face gender discrimination in a country that already values the boy child over the girl, and they face class discrimination as they are at the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum.

The caste, gender, and class they are born into condemn these women to a lifetime of discrimination that is almost impossible to overcome.  Combined, these factors increase the likelihood of having an unpaid or underpaid labor intensive job in the unorganized sector (outside the realm of government regulation).  It increases the rate of sex selective abortions within the population.  In fact, the sex ratio of women to men in India is a dismal 927/1000, but among Dalits it is even lower at 922/1000.  Furthermore, Dalit women have a life expectancy of only 50 years due to inadequate access to health care.

But there is also another side to India and to Dalit women that I can attest to after living and working alongside them – one that says, “impossible is nothing.”

I lived with a Dalit family in Kutch, Gujarat, an arid region on the Northwest coast bordering Pakistan.  I learned from them that living on less than 2 dollars a day does not necessarily make you unhappy.  It just means you are forced to find a way to live your life with far fewer opportunities than others.  I can see that this lack of opportunity is precisely what makes them so resilient, because they have had to create structures and opportunities for themselves.

There are some Rabari women (traditionally of the herding caste) in my village that still avoid touching Dalit women when they go to collect water together, or they wash the tap after it is touched by a Dalit.  If a Rabari woman does touch a Dalit by mistake, she will immediately go home and wash herself so as not to let the contamination spread.

Now juxtapose this image with one where respect is shown in the Kutchi Dalit community by an elder when he or she touches a young girl’s hair with both hands extended (instead of by the young girl bowing down to touch the elder’s feet like you will see in almost every Bollywood movie).

Perhaps it is what Charles Tilly would call a hidden transcript – a silent defiance within the community for all that would refer to them as untouchable. Perhaps it has something to do with a young girl being told too many times that she needs to bow down to the rest of society, and this is that one miscreant act that declares otherwise. Perhaps it is a coincidence. Perhaps it is not.

Either way – I spent a year living and working alongside Dalit women in rural India.  And all I know is I value that elder’s gentle touch on my head.


Hetal Shah is currently pursuing a M.S. in Global Affairs at New York University.  As an Indicorps Fellow between 2011 and 2010, she worked on a Credit and Social Security study to assess and then address the needs of traditional artisans in Gujarat, India. She also started a women’s livelihood program where women learned to weave recycled plastic waste.  In 2009, she studied microfinance in Bangladesh where she assessed the impact of three microfinance institutions: Grameen Bank, BRAC, and ASA. She hopes to use her experiences to further the cause of women’s empowerment in the developing world.


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