Dalits in Nepal in search of hope

Written By : Toni Bacala MediaGlobal. In the Kailali district, deep in the mountains of western Nepal, children from the Dalit caste go to school only to be shunted to
06 May 2011 12:00

image Written By : Toni Bacala MediaGlobal. In the Kailali district, deep in the mountains of western Nepal, children from the Dalit caste go to school only to be shunted to the rear of the classroom, excluded from activities, and return home with exam papers unmarked by teachers.
Decades since Nepal officially rejected the customary caste system, the lower-caste Dalits, which comprise over 20 percent of the nation’s population, remain viciously ostracised. Dalit women and children are especially vulnerable, barred from receiving education, employment, or the possibility of social equality.
“Caste-based discrimination continues to raise serious human rights concerns,” Representative Jyoti Sanghera of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Nepal told MediaGlobal .
The Dalits, literally the “suppressed,” have long endured the caste system established by migrant Hindus in South Asia centuries before. Their marginalisation permeates the basic aspects of life, such as denial of access to potable water, practice of religion, and freedom to marry outside of their caste.
In the less developed western regions of Nepal, the economic, physical, cultural, and psychological violence against Dalit women and children is acute. Dalit women endure double discrimination based on gender and caste, which renders them prey to violence and prostitution.
“Women also often bear the brunt of acts of vengeance against Dalit communities that try to better their circumstances,” explained Maria Brink Schleimann of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN).
Poverty and discrimination push Dalit children further to the margins. The few who are able to go to school are banned from taking certain classes and from drinking from communal water fountains. “This type of discrimination has a devastating effect on the self-esteem of Dalit children and the prospects for them to better their circumstances,” said Schleimann.
Literacy provides a tangible gauge of discrimination in the country. The average literacy rate of Dalits is significantly lower than the national rate, with Dalit women about 20 per cent below the average Nepalese woman.
“Their limited access to quality education reduces their possibilities of alternative and better paid employment, pushing them further into the cycle of poverty and marginalization,” Sanghera said.
Recent OHCHR investigations revealed that prevalent discrimination of Dalits in the workplace bind them to hard labor such as garbage disposal, butchering, or scavenging. They are restricted to work in trades that require contact with food and water because, as their caste implicates, they are deemed impure.
According to Sanghera, there have been several attempts of resistance from Dalits who sought better lives. However, these were met with violence, displacement, and further deprivation of daily sustenance.
The prevalent exclusion of Dalit women and children from education and employment was addressed at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Nepal in Geneva last January. The UPR is an evaluative mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council to ensure the compliance of UN member states to their human rights obligations.
At the review, attending nations called for Nepal to adopt an inclusive constitution grounded on human rights, strengthen the National Dalit Commission, criminalise caste-based discrimination, and improve educational and economic opportunities, especially directed toward Dalit women and children.
Humanitarian programs are instrumental in providing Dalit women and children opportunities of social mobility. Nonetheless, much of the future of these destitute groups depends on the commitment of the government to protecting Dalit communities.
In the past year, the Poverty Alleviation Fund (PAF-Nepal) and USAID Nepal’s Education for Income Generation Program have collaborated to develop literacy and skills trainings program for the disadvantaged youth of western Nepal. The program provides capacity building and training in agriculture, technology, commercial marketing, enterprise creation, and scholarships for vulnerable groups including Dalits.
“The government needs to ensure access to justice for the victims,” said Sanghera. This requires an aggressive implementation of a comprehensive legislative framework and justice system against caste-based and gender discrimination.
As the international community intensifies its call for social equality in Nepal, special attention must be directed to vulnerable Dalit women and children to empower themselves for a better future.

MediaGlobal is an independent international media organisation, based in the United Nations, creating awareness in the global media on social justice and development issues in the world’s least developed countries.

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