On the United Nations Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 25th of November, Dalit women activists are urging the world to pay attention to the plight of women subjected to horrific acts of violence because of their caste and gender.

While the world is busy praising India’s booming economy and status as ‘the world’s biggest democracy’,  Dalit women are subjected to rape, torture, beatings, naked parading and humiliation including being made to eat human faeces in front of members of the dominant castes.  The reason is that they are the lowest of the low in South Asia’s caste hierarchy, also considered a ‘hidden apartheid’, and if they dare to challenge that position and stand up for their rights, they risk violent consequences.

“There are more than 120 million women in South Asia who have been discriminated against and whose rights are violated based on caste and gender,” explains Manjula Pradeep, Executive Director of Navsarjan, an Indian organization that works to empower Dalit women in their struggle against oppression.  Ms. Pradeep stresses that Dalit women have been subjected to forced prostitution, gang rape and other violence for more than 3000 years due to their gender and caste, and it must end now.

Caste “condemns individuals from birth and their communities to a life of exploitation, violence, social exclusion and segregation,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, wrote in an opinion piece last year. Comparing caste to apartheid and slavery she urged that, “we can and must tear down the barriers of caste too.”

Dalit women are among the women in the world that are the most vulnerable to violence and yet also among those that the world hears the least about. On the UN’s Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Dalit women are therefore calling for the world to support them in their struggle and help raise public awareness of their situation.

Despite their destitution, Dalit women are mobilising to fight their corner and risking the consequences to bring awareness to their situation and eradicate the suppressive caste system that causes the violence against them, explains Durga Sob, President of the Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO) in Nepal. Ms. Sob urges the UN to pay special attention to the plight of Dalit women subjected to multiple discrimination, saying that, “Dalit women are especially vulnerable to violence and abuse because they are untouchable, because they are women, because they are poor.”

At a press conference to commemorate the Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women Michele Bachelet, Head of UN Women, the UN agency on women’s issues, explains, “Ending violence against women is not just an end in itself but is a key factor in achieving wider gender equality and accelerating the progress on the MDGs.”

Dalit women are hoping that UN Women, the UN and the international community will help them to stop the violence against them and raise awareness of their struggle to become more than ‘the untouchable women the world forgot’.

More information:

Examples of events being organized by Dalit women in connection with the UN stop violence against women day:

In Nepal, Dalit women activists are organizing a public hearing in connection with the day and run an effective campaign to empower the Dalit women about their rights, lobby, rally, inform legal provisions, research, collect case studies, mobilise, and file cases.

In India, to commerate this day, Dalit women in Governance, a network of grass root Dalit women activists have organised a two day regional conference with the support of Minority Rights Group International (MRG) on the issues of Dalit women.

Please contact info@idsn.org for more information.

Recent examples of Dalit women resistance:

Dalit women who work as manual scavengers, cleaning human waste by hand, have protested in a nationwide march culminating in a rally earlier this month in New Delhi and are demanding that the government take action before the beginning of 2011 to implement the laws in place to stop Dalit women being forced into this work and rehabilitate those whose lives it has already ruined. Read more about this here

Last month 50 year-old Dalit woman in India tried to enter a temple that she was denied access to because of her caste, as a result, she says, “two men barged into my house, cut off the electricity and raped me. Now I have been forced out of the village. No one is registering my complaint. I have nowhere to go.” Lack of access to justice for Dalit women is a major issue in South Asia and Dalit women are often not even allowed into the local police station to file their case.

Context on the UN and Dalit women:

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has spoken out against caste discrimination and urged the UN system to address the rights of Dalit men and women directly. Read the full statement from the High Commissioner here. Several UN mechanisms have also addressed this issue.

Find more information on the UN and Dalit Women here

Read a briefing note on Violence against Dalit women and IDSN’s recommendations on Dalit women, prepared for the 11th session of the Human Rights Council by IDSN and a number of partner organisations for more information.

The UN will officially be opening UN Women, a new agency dealing with women’s issues in January 2011. Dalit women hope that this agency will prioritize addressing their needs.

More information on caste discrimination and Dalit women:

An estimated 260 million people around the world, mainly Dalits in South Asia, are condemned to a lifetime of abuse simply because of the caste into which they are born. Caste denotes a system of rigid social stratification that is reinforced through the threat of social ostracism, economic boycotts, and physical violence resulting in severe violations of civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. In its consequences the caste system resembles that of South Africa’s apartheid and racism. Dalits – also known as ‘untouchables’,  often suffer routine violations of their right to life and security of person also through state sanctioned acts of violence, including torture, with de facto limited access to justice and redress. Dalit women are particularly exposed and subject to multiple forms of discrimination, including sexual abuse by the police and upper-caste men and forced prostitution.  As a result they face even higher levels of poverty and exclusion.  As a major cause of poverty, caste-based discrimination is also an obstacle to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

www.idsn.org provides comprehensive information on the issue of caste discrimination. The website also provides country information on Dalit women in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.