It is easy to read about caste in a dispassionate manner when you have not been affected by it. And if you’re privileged enough, it seems intangible and numerical, like something far away.
A recent United Nations report however reveals, through a simple statistic, just how much caste affects those who are oppressed: The average age of death for Dalit women is 14.6 years younger than for higher caste women.
Titled ‘Turning promises into action: Gender equality in the 2030 agenda for sustainable development’, the report sheds light on intersectional inequalities and how it puts women across the world at a disadvantage in different ways.
Taking the example of Dalit women in India, the report notes that a woman’s caste “can increase her exposure to mortality as a result of factors such as poor sanitation and inadequate water supply and healthcare.”
What Dalit women face is a form of clustered deprivation where they are disadvantaged not only because they are Dalit or because they are women, but because of both. They are further disadvantaged if they are poor. “It is the intersection of gender with other forms of discrimination that pushes women and girls from poor and marginalized groups behind,” the report says.
However, the UN study merely scratches the surface of the discrimination that Dalit women face.
Kathir, a Dalit activist and founder of Evidence, a Madurai-based NGO fighting caste discrimination, points out that the lack of access is also because of the physical isolation of Dalits.
“If you look at most villages in the country, there are separate Dalit colonies and caste-colonies. Most government schemes are shabbily implemented in these colonies – be it laying a road or building a hostel for children or women,” he says. “I have seen many Dalit hostels near burial grounds and other unliveable areas. Hostels for backward class communities are in relatively better areas with better facilities.”
Kathir notes that Dalits also face discrimination based on food. “There is a hierarchy even for nutrition,” he observes. To explain, he asks us to consider this equation: Caste-Hindu men > Caste-Hindu Women > Dalit men > Dalit women
“So, Dalit women basically eat just to exist. Many Dalit women subsist on poor quality rice or rice which lacks nutritional value. They pour water in the rice from the previous day and eat it as broth the next day,” he says.
Founder and Executive Director of the Society for Rural Education and Development (SRED), Burnad Fathima Natesan, has been working with the Dalit community in Tamil Nadu for decades. The senior Dalit activist argues that reducing Dalit women’s lack of access to sanitation and poor healthcare is only a part of the problem.
The root cause, she says, is the lack of economic resources given to Dalit women – at the fore of which is land distribution.
“We don’t want the government’s help in building toilets. We want land, we want water for irrigation. We want to be able to grow food for ourselves and our community. That joy of being able to sustain ourselves and contribute to the community is important,” she argues.
Fathima believes that once Dalit women are given a share in the economy, and are economically empowered, things like access to sanitation and healthcare will improve. “Why does the government not distribute land to us? It’s an economic and political issue, and because it is political, the UN report will not touch it. The root of the problem is much bigger,” she says.
Kathir also questions the unequal land ownership in the country. “In 1892, the British allocated 12 lakh acres of land according to the Depressed Class Conditional Land Act. However today, the Dalits only own 3000 acres of this allocated land. Where is the rest? Who owns it?” he asks.
Economic disparity, caste and gender
The UN report makes an important observation about non-poor women, and how they are still disadvantaged.
“A study of health outcomes in Koppal district, Karnataka (India), for example, found that while poor women were consistently among the furthest behind in terms of access to health services, non-poor women were somewhere in the middle, with outcomes similar to poor men. These women’s ability to leverage their economic status kept them out of the furthest behind category, but gender disadvantages meant their outcomes were not that much better than those of poor men, who themselves faced economic but not gender disadvantage,” it said.
“Dalit women who work as farm labourers earn a significantly lesser than their male counterparts,” observes Kathir. “This is in addition to the erratic wages that they draw from their toils in the farms.”
Fathima also points out that the disadvantage Dalit women face is at a complex intersection of caste and gender, and cannot be completely solved even with upward economic mobility. “Even if the woman is not a Dalit, she faces discrimination because of her gender almost everywhere. Take my example. Even in my own community, I am isolated by men,” she says.
Fathima says that this can only change when mind-sets change. “That cannot be done by just talking. They should start by giving us land,” she asserts.