Imagine you were not born free. Imagine you were assigned to clean dry latrines and sewers, sweep the streets or handle the dead just because of your family lineage. Imagine you were beaten, raped and humiliated because you were regarded as ‘dirty’ and a lesser human being. And imagine you were perceived to be polluting the classroom and forced out of school. Today around 260 million people primarily in South Asia, but also in other parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa are born into a life where they are subjected to dehumanising practices linked to the notion of ‘untouchability’ and caste discrimination. The notion of ‘untouchability’ signifies a practice of strict separation, subordination and exploitation of Dalits – also known as ‘untouchables’ or ‘Scheduled Castes’. It involves strict segregation, modern-day slavery, and other extreme forms of discrimination and violence. Dalit means ‘broken people’. It is the name the ‘untouchables’ or ‘Scheduled Castes’ have chosen for themselves to signify a growing movement of empowerment. Still part of the Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and Muslim communities, the caste system ensures the powerful stay powerful and leaves Dalits without protection. Caste-based discrimination involves massive violations of basic human rights. Many constitutions of caste affected countries have outlawed ‘untouchability’ and other forms of discrimination based on caste, and one country, India, has enacted special laws for the protection of Dalits. However legislation goes unenforced and caste-based discrimination remains one of today’s largest human rights problems.
Exhibition: Seperate and unequal
Birari, Bihar, India
Don’t cross the line! The Dalit villagers of Birari are lined up in front of the road which caste laws prevent them from crossing. Instead of using the public road through the village, they have to go through the fields and bush when going to and from their settlement – or face the consequences.
Pangu PWD Sweeper Colony, Agargoan, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Weeping the streets is a dirty job and Dhaka's sweepers are mainly Dalits. They are discriminated against and confined to live in slums. 500 people live in 98 shacks under unsanitary conditions. Each shack is extremely small, only a few square meters. The authorities provide no safe drinking water, no electricity and no special health facilities. There are no schools in the vicinity.
Dhangadi, Far Western Province, Nepal
Non-Dalits consider Dalits to be ‘impure’ and ‘polluted’, so intercaste marriage is often perceived as a sin. Living only 200 meters apart, Jhakondra, 21, and Manisha, 19, did the unthinkable and fell in love. Following years of arguments and attacks by Manisha’s non-Dalit family, the couple ran away to India and got married shortly before this picture was taken. But they are lucky – young ‘mixed’ couples often pay with their lives since non-Dalit families sometimes resort to murder to avoid the shame and ‘pollution’ of the family.
Dhangadi, Far Western Province, Nepal
Happy wedding memories live on, but reality is harsh. Today Jhakondra and Manisha cannot visit any of their families. Manisha became a Dalit when marrying Jhakondra, so she has now been rejected by her family. Jhakondra’s family lives so close to Manisha’s family that quarrels are unavoidable if they come visit.
Kotri, Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan
The segregation of the so-called ’Scheduled Castes’ is complete in this teashop in Karachi. Men from the Kolhi caste are not allowed into the teashops owned by Muslims or dominant castes. Similarly, no other men than Kolhi men can enter a Kolhi teashop.
Exhibtion: Freedom comes at a cost
Shaileshwori Temple, Silgadhi, Nepal
Dalit women worshipping at the Shaileshwori Temple, Nepalese Dalits have fought against discrimination and made great leaps forward in recent years. The ‘Temple Movement’ protests against dominant castes who prevent Dalits from accessing public spaces such as temples, restaurants and markets. In the ‘Dalit Rights Kathmandu Charter’ from 2007, Dalit representatives call for an end to discrimination of Dalits in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres and for the inclusion of Dalits in the current restructuring of the state and decision making process.
Lucknowm Uttar Pradesh, India
On 25 March 2007, Awadkesh Kumar, 24, was hit by gunshots fired by members of the dominant caste in his community. In the days leading up to the incident, members of the dominant caste had verbally abused Dalits by calling them degrading caste names. Awadkesh had tried to mediate and did manage to settle the immediate dispute. But on the day of the incident a group of men were waiting for him and fired their guns as soon as they saw him. Awadkesh was semi-unconscious for five days and lost both eyes. Four arrests were made, but the court case is still pending. Meanwhile, Awadkesh is unable to feed his family and relies on the help of neighbors.
Dhaka Lahan, Bihar, India
Captured, stripped naked, beaten and slashed with a knife under both eyes, Sunita Devi, a 35 year old Dalit woman has paid a heavy price for living in the center of her town on land wanted by dominant castes. After ten years the court case is still pending. Sunita thinks the perpetrators are paying off the courts to stall her case until it is too old to process. Impunity for caste-related crimes remains an enormous problem.
Freed Hari Camp (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s camo for freed bonded laborers)
Manu Bheel has become a symbol for the struggle against forced labor in Pakistan. Manu is a Dalit belonging to the Bheel ‘subcaste’. He and his family were freed in 1996 from forced labor when the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found them in chains. Two years later, in May 1998, nine of Manu Bheel’s family members was kidnapped – allegedly on orders from the landlord from whom they had been rescued. Manu’s family members have still not been found. Arrests were not made until eight years later, and the suspects were released on bail – the case is not yet settled. Over the years, Manu has been tortured by people who wanted him to withdraw the case. International organizations have criticized the government for denying Manu and his family access to justice and basic human rights protection.
Exhibition: When disaster hits
Dilahi, Bihar, India, October 2007.
A meagre income. Dalits suffer double when natural disasters hit, as happened in South Asia in June 2007. Heavy rainfall caused the river Gandak to overflow, leaving millions of people in the state of Bihar displaced and without food and shelter. Even if the government dispatches help, discrimination often happens when dominant castes are responsible for the distribution of relief items.
Birari, Bihar, India, October 2007.
Dalits from the flooded areas of Bihar are questioning a local government official about why they have received little or no help. The Dalit river communities in Bihar are forced to live in separate settlements, so their problems and needs are often overlooked in times of disaster. Government officials rarely come to do needs assessments. Vincent Manoharan from India was part of a NGO survey team that went to Bihar to investigate caste discrimination in relief distribution:
“Most Dalit communities were left with no relief aid from the government or NGOs. We wrote to the governor and asked for equity and inclusion in the humanitarian aid to those affected by the floods.”
Displaced girl from Aladane village, Bihar, India, October 2007.
The road is her home now - she is wearing all her clothes and she has received no help. Dalit children and women are particularly vulnerable in times of crisis. Levels of violence and cases of rape increase as Dalits are forced into new areas where their presence tests the unjust power hierarchies of the caste system.
Exhibition: The son of a sweeper is a sweeper
This Dalit man works as a sweeper in Dhaka. Many Dalits are not able to break out of traditional caste occupations due to discrimination and stigma.
Exhibition: Modern day slavery
Pachnali, Far Western Province, Nepal, November 2007.
Caught in a bondage system that defies logic, Gore Sunar, 55, has worked for 25 years because of loans. With no agreement on interest rates, Gore gets no salary and works just to keep his four landlords happy so that they won’t ask for repayment. In this respect, Dalits like Gore are kept in a situation whereby they reinforce and perpetuate the unequal caste system. The ‘Dalit Rights Kathmandu Charter 2007’ calls for all kinds of bonded labour and exploitation of labour as determined by the feudal land production system to be ended and provisions be made for rehabilitation of the affected Dalits. Until then, Gore keeps working.
Pachnali, Far Western Province, Nepal, November 2007.
Debt bondage is outlawed, yet Gore’s nephew (in grey shirt) inherits the loan when Gore dies as Gore himself does not have a son. With no clear agreement on interest rates and repayment, the two younger brothers of one of the landlords (both with hands in their pockets) will come out on top.
Freed Hari Camp (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s camp for freed labourers), Sindh, Pakistan, April 2008.
Bonded labour in Pakistan among ’lower caste’ Hindus, some of whom have converted to Christianity or Islam, is widespread. In the provinces of Sindh and Punjab an estimated 0.75 to 1.5 million people are bonded labourers. Debt bondage is fuelled by the absence of a formal credit system, as well as the availability of a vulnerable and poor labour force. A few years ago, the police conducted missions to free bonded labourers. Many of them settled in the ’Freed Hari Camp’ – a camp near a stone quarry in the Sikanderabad Kotri, Sindh province. Men and women in the camp earn a living by making stone – a team of workers get ten euros per truckload.
In recent years, Government commitment to abolish bonded labour has slowed down, although raids to free bonded labourers still occur. Even though the official Human Rights Commission of Pakistan established the camp, it is often under attack from government forces who want the land.
Umerkot, Sindh, Pakistan, April 2008.
40 families of the Oad caste in Pakistan’s Sindh province work at this brick factory. Among them is Phoolan, her three children and husband. Whether they borrowed money from the owners, also of the Oad caste, is not clear, but very likely. They get two euros per 1000 bricks which is the amount they can produce in one day.
Litani, Haryana, India, October 2007.
14 year old Sukhwinder Singh’s father was an alcoholic and a gambler. At the age of 35, Balwan Singh saw suicide as the only way out of a loan of 474 euros he took from his landlord to sustain his drinking habit as well as buy medicine for his sick mother. For the past six years his son, Sukhwinder, has been working for an average wage of 63 euros per year to repay the loan while at the same time supporting his three sisters and brothers and his mother. Luckily Sukhwinder and others are able to keep track of the repayment - he still needs to repay 79 euros before he is free.
Exhibition: a dalit woman suffers triple
Mura, Far Western Province, Nepal, November 2007.
The Badi caste in Nepal is a Dalit ‘sub-caste’. Many Badi women are forced into prostitution and end up being trafficked to Mumbai’s sex industry. Soni Badi, 25, is a sex worker. As a Badi Dalit she is prevented from owning land, has little access to education and other services crucial to sustain life and avoid lifelong poverty.
Mura, Far Western Province, Nepal, November 2007.
Soni with her son in her bedroom. Children of Badi sex workers often have unknown fathers. Until recently, citizenship in Nepal was given according to the father’s name. Badi children were therefore unable to obtain citizenship in their own country. After protesting outside the parliament in Kathmandu, Badi rights activists ensured that Badis can now use their mother’s name and gain citizenship.
Mura, Nepal, November 2007.
A sex worker, mother of three and community leader involved in improving the lives of the Badi community, Gomati Badi, 28, is busy. Poverty makes Nepali Dalit women easy targets for trafficking along the Nepalese-Indian border, so Gomati fights for equal access to land, Dalit participation in the constitutional assembly and better education.
Freed Hari Camp (Human Rights Commision of Pakistan's camp for freed bonded laborers),
These girls are free to practice their dancing skills for an upcoming wedding. They are lucky. Their parents were freed from forced or bonded labor and now they live in a camp that has been established for former bonded laborers. Had their parents not been freed, these girls would have grown up in slavery. As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Pakistan has a duty to ensure that children are not subjected to economic exploitation and that their fundamental rights are respected. Thousands of other girls are waiting to be freed, so they can dance too.
Seperate and Unequal
Segregation in housing, schools and cremation grounds
Limitations or prohibitions of access to public places such as roads, temples and tea houses
Denial or limitations of access to public services such as water taps, health care and eduction
De facto prohibitions of inter-case marriage
Denied Civil and Political Rights
Subjection to extreme forms of violence and humiliations as part of caste oppression
Harassment and discrimination to prevent Dalits from participating in political processes
Use of sexual violence against Dalit women as a way to suppress an entire community
Denial of access to justice; caste bias in the police and judiciary means virtual impunity for crimes against Dalits
Denied Economic, Social and Cultural rights
Restrictions on occupation; assignment of the most menial, dirty, and dangerous jobs as defined by the caste hierchy
Forced and bonded labour; a high number of Dalits enslaved
De facto prohibition of access to and ownership of land