Women’s emancipation is impossible to obtain without achieving equal status for all sections of women. AIDWA has been in the forefront of the struggle to mainstream the multiple dimensions of oppression that women face in our country, because they belong to a particular caste, community, or class. When we started focusing on the specific problems facing certain sections of women, we discovered that the depth and range of violence suffered by them were hardly visible, and did not form part of the public consciousness. The denial of rights to dalit women was one such issue of contestation. Despite facts and figures which showed the backwardness of dalit women in society, the varnashrama mindset of caste hierarchies ordained by religion and legitimized by custom, prevailed over the democratic ethos. Ambedkar’s dictum at the time of placing the constitution that democracy in the political arena may have been achieved, but economic and social rights would still have to be fought for in our country is proving to be true more than 6 decades after the nation won independence!
It was in such a context that AIDWA started doing surveys of dalit women, in states like Tamil Nadu, and UP, and started documenting the huge burden of triple exploitation and discrimination that was being heaped upon dalit women in our country, as women, as workers, and as members of a caste. It was a sobering wake up call, as it was found, repeatedly, that dalit women faced exclusion and exploitation in multiple ways, and were subjected to the most barbaric forms of violence. Dalit women’s conventions were held, highlighting some of these instances- dalit women were being prevented from standing in the same ration queue, denied water from community wells, prevented from using common lands for answering the call of nature, facing harassment when doing so, prevalence of 2 glass systems in tea shops, dalit bridegrooms not allowed to ride horses in marriage ceremonies, dalit children being seated separately in schools, dalit women forced to provide free labour in the households of landlords, etc. This was apart from the major factors like denial of right to land, the huge violence and sexual harassment which they had to face, the lack of basic facilities, etc. Even in urban areas, segregation, and social discrimination was rampant. The most menial jobs, as sweepers, as scavengers, are still filled by dalits. Their colonies do not have civic facilities. Laws that have been formulated in their defense are rarely, if at all, implemented. Sadly, the situation is not far different even today.
Hence we have given the call that the organization- which comprises of women from all classes, castes, and communities, - must unitedly tackle these forms of oppression. This conscious strategy adopted by AIDWA is an important way of addressing an issue, wherein the inequity and injustice prevailing within our system could be fought back, and more dalit women could become involved in the larger struggle for emancipation. Such an approach is different from that of caste based organizations which wish to deliberately separate dalits from other sections fighting for social change. At the same time, it counters the trend which objectively ignores the reality of caste oppression in the name of unity of the oppressed class.
While our interventions and struggles in some states, like Tamil nadu, Haryana, & UP, have been noteworthy, and we have achieved some success, as well as recognition for our role, much more needs to be done. This must become an area of priority intervention for us in the current situation. The organization has to make this into a priority agenda.
Multiple dimensions of social exclusion and violence
There are wide gaps between dalit women and other sections in all human development parameters. – education, employment, health, sanitation, drinking water, civic amenities, and human rights. Even between dalit men and women, the difference is pronounced. Dalit women form 16.3% of the total female population, numbering about 8 crores. Their literacy rate is around 24% which is almost twice as low as that for dalit men. Over 83% of dalit girls dropout of school at the secondary stage, which is the most crucial for the next stage of higher education, and for future employment. Their poor participation is not merely because of poverty or non availability of educational opportunities, but also because the atmosphere is often hostile, and polluted by caste prejudice, which acts as an effective deterrent. In the recent period, institutions, homes, hostels, have been in the news as sites of sexual assault on girls. The girls in such institutions are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. has been a spurt in sexual crimes against young girls who are coming forward to avail of education. In MP, for example, where the BJP is in power, (and has been claiming to have done a lot for girl’s education), our organization exposed a racket in an SC hostel, where the warden was herself guilty of playing the agent. Our protests forced her arrest, but the real criminals, who had friends in high places, escaped as no one was willing to identify them.
The grip of the caste system has had a devastating impact on production relations, and consequently on dalit women’s employment. It is not only that their predominant occupation as agricultural labourers has suffered badly due to the agrarian crisis, and they are being forced to migrate, taking up whatever jobs are available in the unorganized sector. In a globalized scenario, where the market economy undervalues women’s work, but commodifies her body, the incidence of trafficking has increased enormously, and there are villages in Jharkhand where gangs operate to buy hapless dalit girls and sell them in the urban flesh markets. Dalits form a majority of the 40 million bonded labour in India, many of these are women and children. There are also forms of ritualized prostitution- the devadasi, and the jogini system, which are still prevalent, and religious sanction is afforded to what is often child prostitution. In Karnataka, AIDWA had taken up this issue through broader campaigns, and has demanded a stop to this form of sexual exploitation.
Women are often relegated to menial jobs, as they lack appropriate skills and education. They are hired as manual scavengers at a pittance, and then derided and humiliated for performing a task without which the whole community would go up in a stink. Recently, in UP, AIDWA has taken up the issue of sanitary workers who clean dry toilets and carry away the nightsoil on their head. Fighting to get them jobs in municipal corporations etc. is a major part of the struggle.
The development indicators are themselves a sign of the violence of exclusion and marginalization that continues even today. The extreme poverty within dalit households has also impacted adversely on dalit women, 56% of whom suffer from anaemia. Infant mortality at 83/1000 births is very high. Apart from exclusion from land, protected water, sanitation, proper housing, etc, dalits often do not have access to burial grounds, which has been a flash point of conflict, as these lands get occupied by the upper castes. In innumerable cases of atrocities by land owning upper castes, the dalit families are unable to demand justice as they are dependant on the uppercaste for their livelihood. It is only when organizations like AIDWA intervene that they can take up the fight for justice.
In the hindi speaking states, where the highest number of atrocities against dalits and dalit women are witnessed, barbaric and humiliating acts of violence are being committed with impunity. AIDWA units have intervened in many cases of atrocities, to strengthen the fight for justice. In Fatehpur district, a dalit woman, was raped by the henchman of a notorious criminal, who had unleashed a reign of terror in the whole area for about 15 years. He was given every kind of political protection by leaders belonging to his Brahmin caste belonging to all the major parties. AIDWA intervened in the case and mobilized women from outside the district and also the village and after a long struggle was able to get the accused arrested and compensation paid to Sonia. In the process, the village got hand-pumps and brick lanes for the first time. Later, the same gangster murdered a villager and, again after AIDWA’s intervention, was finally arrested after a long criminal history in which he had more than 52 major cases registered against him.
The use of violence as an instrument of control and coercion of dalits by the upper castes is a well attested feature of sexual assault on dalit women. The National Commission for Women pointed out in a study that –In the commission of offences against SC women, the offenders try to establish their authority and humiliate the community by subjecting their women to indecent and inhuman treatment, including sexual assault, parading naked, using filthy language, etc.
In many such cases, the role of the police in protecting the criminals is a shocking indictment of the criminal justice system. Even filing an FIR is done only after protests and pressure is exerted. In June 2013, AIDWA took up the case of a 11 year old girl from Jharkhand, who was misled and raped by a neighbor. When the mother and daughter went to the police station to complain, they were made to wait in the station overnight, and their complaint was accepted only the next day. Action against the culprit was taken only after the AIDWA held a demonstration and gheraoed the police personnel.
Though the SC/ST Act is a powerful one, cases are hardly ever registered under this section. When the victims insist, and pressure is created, violence is unleashed against the dalits who have had the guts to demand their rights. In one such case from UP, a Chamar Raidas woman Tejania, aged about 50 years, her daughter-in-law, Jagpatiya, Jagpatiya' s two children, Pooja (8 years old) and Ashish (one and a half years) and her daughter Kamla's daughter, Lalita (10 yrs) were battered to death with a lathi by Devideen Singh, a landlord. She was the first woman in the area to have registered a case under the SC/ST Act against Devideen after he abused her and she paid for this with her life. AIDWA intervened and helped the family in many ways including with legal help.
Though the representation of dalit women in panchayats has increased due to reservation, they are still not able to exercise their power, and are often subjected to violence, expecially if they try to take up issues of the poor and deprived sections. In Lalpur village of Mirzapur, a dalit Sarpanch, Lilavati, opposed misutilization of Govt. funds which enraged the upper caste members of the panchayat who brought a no-confidence motion against her and tried to get her removed. It was only the intervention of AIDWA that helped her retain her post.
Landlessness is, of course, the bane of existence for dalit women in the rural areas. It is the cause not only of their poverty but also their dependance that increases their vulnerability to violence. In Bihar, dalit AIDWA activists have been killed in land struggles. In Chandauli, Kol and Musahar women belonging to AIDWA have been successfully in occupying land that the Raja of Benares claimed belonged to him. AP and Tamil Nadu have also seen militant land movements.
Of course, it is in the States of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura where Left Parties have been able to form Governments that real distribution of land has taken place and dalit women in lakhs have been beneficiaries. Dalit women have accessed 37% of the 4.85 lakh joint pattas to land distributed by the West Bengal Govt. Since dalits form more than 50% of the beneficiaries of all the land distributed by this Govt., certainly dalit women have benefitted greatly from land reforms carried out in that State. Permanency of tenure assued by Operation Barga has been another great step in their development. In Tripura, social justice committees have been set up at various levels and model villages for dalits have been developed. As a result of these measures, the practice of untouchability is almost non-existent in these States.
Another aspect of the impact of the caste system on womens rights is the prevalence of Honour Killings in many parts of the country. AIDWA has made many interventions in these cases and a few examples are quoted below, from Haryana, where AIDWA has been leading this struggle:
In Kaithal district, a young dalit couple belonging to the same village who married were forced to leave the village by the panchayat. A few months later, the boy came to meet his parents and this enraged the panchayat members (all belonging to the upper castes) who took a decision to stone him and his wife to death. The unsuspecting girl was brought to the village and both of them were stoned to death by the entire village, including children. AIDWA members tried to register the case after visiting the village, but no case could be registered since there were no complainants.
A young dalit girl was married off when she was 7. When she was hardly 13, the in-laws insisted that she be sent to their home and they called a panchayat. The panchayat sent a group of armed men to her house and despite the objections of her parents they dragged the child off. Her older sister was an AIDWA member and she contacted the organization. The police had to be forced to take action and when they went to the girl’s ‘marital’ home they found her locked in a room with burn marks on her body. It was with great difficulty that she could be taken away. AIDWA helped her to get a divorce. Today she is an elected municipal councilor and happily married.
- August 2002, two Jat sisters from Talav Village in the notorious Jhajjar District ran away with a Dalit boy. The older sister was in love with him and the younger one knew that her parents would beat her to death when her sister's escape became known to them. Despite the fact that some Left activists in the area warned the administration that there would be attacks on dalits, they did nothing. A woman who belonged to the Dalit boy’s family was so badly threatened that she committed suicide. Many Dalits ran away from the village and the womenfolk were forced to sleep on their rooftops. The police ‘intervened’ by registering a Dowry harassment case against the in-laws. The dalits could no longer use the well or graze their animals. They were refused milk and all provisions. They were not allowed to buy even vegetables from the village shops. The caste panchayat of the dominant castes of the area ensured that the entire dalit community was harassed and humiliated in every way possible. AIDWA along with Left activists could only intervene to a limited extent.
What comes to the fore is the nexus between caste, class, and political power, within which the dalit women are made to pay a heavy price. The recent tragic death of ilavarasan in tamil nadu points to the new forms of control that are sought to be wielded by caste forces, and what the outcomes would be if the democratic forces do not rise to the challenge..
AIDWA has to recognize that the old and new manifestations of discrimination, denial and exclusion in the neo liberal era, that are today exacerbating the violence against dalit women, and strengthen the fight to ensure that dalit women’s human rights are safeguarded. Only then can women’s equality and emancipation be truly achieved. Let us renew our pledge to this struggle!