Women with Disabilities

The intersection of caste and women's rights in India

India's booming economy and increasing prosperity does not conceal the fact that an oppressive caste system still exists. The Indian Government has so far failed in its endeavours to eradicate caste, and women in particular are regularly subject to gross human rights violations as a result. In this article, AWID explores the cultural and political terrain of caste and its intersection with women's rights.

By Rochelle Jones

Caste is a system of social stratification that is descent based and hereditary, determined by an individual's birth. Different to class, caste is something that an individual cannot easily transgress. Whilst referred to as an historical concept in India, the social classification of people by caste is still prevalent ? permeating housing, education, marriage, employment and social relations in general. There have historically been four predominant castes in India consisting of the Brahmins, the intellectual class, Kshatriyas, the warrior class, Vaishyas, the agricultural and trader class and Shudras, the service or manual worker class. The former 'Untouchables' - now known as 'Dalits' or 'scheduled castes' ? fall outside the traditional four-fold caste system and primarily continue to be considered by the upper castes as impure and polluting. As a result, this large portion of the Indian population has been relegated to "a lifetime of discrimination, exploitation and violence" [1].

"Untouchability" is a concept related to the demeaning traditional work performed by Dalits such as sweeping and manual scavenging (the illegal-but-still-very-much-in-practice task of cleaning human excrement from India's roads and dry latrines). "Untouchability" was abolished in India's Constitution, meaning that the dominant castes can no longer legally force Dalits to perform any "polluting" occupation. Yet this type of work is "still the monopoly of the scheduled castes...Migration and the anonymity of the urban environment have in some cases resulted in upward occupational mobility among Dalits, but the majority continue to perform their traditional functions" [2].

The Indian Government has implemented comprehensive Constitutional provisions and other legislation to combat discrimination based on race and caste, including quotas of reserved seats in Union and State legislatures and of posts in the public service. The Government has also established several institutions responsible for the implementation of anti-discrimination legislation and for the monitoring of discrimination and violence against members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, including the Ministry of Social Justice, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, and the National Commissions on Scheduled Castes and on Scheduled Tribes.

The Prime Minister himself has condemned the discriminatory treatment of Dalits and likened the practices of "untouchability" to that of apartheid in South Africa ? but at the same time has failed to demonstrate the political will to address it. Unfortunately caste discrimination against Dalits is "both a political reality and social fact" [3].

Reality of caste discrimination in India

In a recent shadow report to the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, the current reality of discrimination against Dalits was exposed [4]. The report is based on investigations by HRW and the findings of Indian Governmental and non-governmental organisations on caste-based abuses and suggests, for example, that the government's failure to address caste discrimination "has resulted in continued, and sometimes enhanced, brutalities against Dalits" [5]. Excerpts from the report of some of the main issues facing Dalits follow:

* India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has commented that the law enforcement machinery is the greatest violator Dalit's human rights... The police often target whole Dalit communities in search of one individual and subject the community to violent search and seizure operations. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence by the police, which is used as a tool to punish Dalit communities. Police also actively allow private actors to commit violence against Dalits with impunity (p4).

* Residential segregation of Dalits is prevalent across the country, and is the rule rather than the exception. Segregation is also evident in schools, in access to public services, and in access to services operated by the private sector. A recently published survey documented "untouchability" practices in almost 80% of the villages surveyed (p7).

* The police have systematically failed to protect Dalit homes and Dalit individuals from acts of looting, arson, sexual assault, torture, and other inhumane acts such as the tonsuring (shaving a person's head), stripping and parading of Dalit women, and forcing Dalits to drink urine and eat faeces (p9)

*Strict prohibitions on marriage and other social interaction between Dalits and the upper caste routinely violate the rights of Dalits to marry and choose their spouse. Dalits who have married 'above' their caste have reportedly been forced to break all ties with their families (p10 & 70).

* The denial of the right to work and free choice of employment lies at the very heart of the caste system. Dalits are forced to work in "polluting" and degrading occupations such as manual scavenging and are subject to exploitative labour arrangements such as bonded labour, migratory labour and forced prostitution (p12).

The caste/gender intersection

Dalit women are positioned at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, subject to multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of their caste, class and gender. According to a 2006 report [6], "Dalit women endure violence in both the general community and in the family, from state and non-state actors of different genders, castes and socio-economic groupings". Most of the violence that Dalit women face is perpetrated against them in public spaces and women find it almost impossible to obtain informal or formal justice. Dalit women are subject to a multitude of atrocities, including rape ? which is perpetrated with impunity with little or no redress in the courts -, sexual abuse and humiliation. As is typical in many situations, a woman's body is perceived as representing family and community honour, and to teach a family or community a lesson, women are generally the primary targets.

The practice of devadasi particularly illustrates the gender/caste nexus with regard to the violation of women's human rights. This practice is where "a girl, usually before reaching puberty, is ceremoniously dedicated or married to a deity or temple... Once dedicated, the girl is unable to marry, forced to become a prostitute for the upper-caste community and eventually auctioned into an urban brothel". Devadasi's usually belong to the Dalit community. [7]

In addition to the violence Dalit women routinely face from the upper castes, they are also found at the bottom of the Dalit hierarchy. This is directly related to their poorer social and economic status as women, and they are inevitably channelled into the most hazardous and degrading work for survival. Government estimates suggest that there are about one million manual scavengers in India, and 95% are women. Research indicates that despite manual scavenging being illegal, its practice is actually increasing [8]. This type of work is demeaning, unsanitary and hazardous, and has a social stigma attached to it where even other Dalits won't associate with individuals who perform the work. Their stories are unfathomable, with one woman describing how she felt that she herself was human excrement.

The violation of Dalit women's rights is characteristic of the intersection of caste and gender, and is further legitimised by the subordination of women's rights in general. "India has failed to address the multiple axes of discrimination faced by Dalit women - including their unequal access to services, employment opportunities, and justice mechanisms as compared to Dalit men - and threats to their personal security, including through brutal acts of sexual violence" [9]

How can India address caste-based discrimination?

India is bound by its obligations under the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination which in Article 1 defines "racial discrimination" as "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life". [10]

In their fifteenth to nineteenth periodic reports, which were considered by CERD in February 2007, the Indian government claimed that discrimination based on caste falls outside the scope of Article 1 of the Convention. As a result, their reports did not outline any instances of caste discrimination nor any concrete measures undertaken by the government to address caste-based discrimination. [11]

This is a clear indication of a lack of political will to fully acknowledge and address discrimination against Dalits in India. After consideration of India's position, CERD maintained and reaffirmed that discrimination based on the ground of caste is fully covered by Article 1 of the Convention - expressed in general recommendation No. 29 "that discrimination based on 'descent' includes discrimination against members of communities based on forms of social stratification such as caste and analogous systems of inherited status which nullify or impair their equal enjoyment of human rights." [12]. India will be required to report on caste-based discrimination in their next report to CERD, due in 2010.

The inroads taken in addressing this apartheid-style of discrimination - such as Constitutional amendment, specific legislation and monitoring bodies and reservations for Dalits in education and politics - are a positive step in the right direction, but are clearly not being effectively implemented. Further, there seems to be a need to focus on abolishing caste itself, not just the discrimination that is inherently built in to the system. An Indian academic asserts that "caste discrimination exists because people continue to believe in caste. Indian democracy is, paradoxically, a culprit. By encouraging the formation of democratic participation along the lines of identity, caste is, in fact, reinforced every time India goes to the polls. The recent electoral gains of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh must be seen in the context of this double-edged nature of caste." [13]. (The Bahujan Samaj Party are a political party representing the interests of low caste and Dalit peoples).

Non-government organisations like the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, the National Federation of Dalit Women and other local organisations have been extremely active in campaigning and raising awareness of Dalits' human rights situation, as well as holding their government responsible for its inadequacies. In order for a complete cultural shift away from caste to take place in India, however, the Government urgently needs to back its rhetoric on India's 'apartheid' with real and quantifiable measures that address the litany of human rights abuses being perpetrated against Dalits, and in particular, Dalit women.


  1. Hidden Apartheid, 2007. Human Rights Watch and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, p2. Available to download from: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2007/india0207/
  2. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.Please read more from: http://www.ncdhr.org.in/ncdhr/general-info-misc-pages/wadwiu
  3. The Hindu. August 2007. The caste system ? India's apartheid? Please read more from: http://www.thehindu.com/2007/08/18/stories/2007081856301200.htm
  4. See Note 1.
  5. See Note 1.
  6. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, March 2006. Dalit Women Speak Out: Violence Against Dalit Women in India.Please read more from: http://www.indianet.nl/pdf/dalitwomenspeakout.pdf
  7. See Note 1.
  8. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Please read more from: http://www.ncdhr.org.in/ncdhr/campaigns/manualscavenging
  9. See Note 1.
  10. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination http://www.ohchr.org/english/law/cerd.htm
  11. United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Seventieth session 19 February ? 9 March 2007. CONSIDERATION OF REPORTS SUBMITTED BY STATES PARTIES UNDER ARTICLE 9 OF THE CONVENTION. Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination ? INDIA.
  12. http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/898586b1dc7b4043c1256a450044f331/0a287107325678c5c12572ed004ac999/$FILE/G0741717.pdf
  13. See Note 10.
  14. See Note 3.

Source: http://www.awid.org/eng/Issues-and-Analysis/Library/The-intersection-of-caste-and-women-s-rights-in-India2/%28language%29/eng-GB

Mail from: IWRAW Asia Pacific

By: Rochelle Jones
When: 7/2/2014

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