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The Dalits and Dalit Women of the Terai

By Professor Hari Bansh Jha

Constituting some 20 per cent of the total population in Nepal, the untouchables, popularly known as Dalits, remained exploited for centuries. The Dalit communities have not only been discriminated in the Hindu caste hierarchy but they have also been suppressed by the State. In the Nepalese history, an account of the exploitation of the Dalit communities by the State dates back to the mediaeval period in the 13th century when King Jayasthiti Malla formalized the caste system. Because of the State support to discriminatory practices, the Dalits forfeited their right to education and they were denied of the right to acquire property. They were discouraged from constructing good house and touch persons of higher castes. So much so that certain sections of the Dalits were almost forced to live either in the outskirts of the villages or in the filthy slums.

The discriminatory practices against the Dalits continued abated under the feudal political system for centuries. Unfortunately, Jung Bahadur Rana further formalized the caste system by introducing the Muluki Ain (Civil Code) in 1853. Accordingly, the atrocities against the Dalit caste people were intensified. In the Muluki Ain, the Brahmins, holding highest position in Hindu caste hierarchy, were excluded from capital punishment; while the other castes of people, including the Dalits were subject to such punishment. It was only in the Muluki Ain of 1963 that discrimination between the Brahmins and other castes in the matter of capital punishment was abolished. It stated that legally every citizen is equal irrespective of caste, creed and sex. But it did not declare the act of untouchability to be punishable.

Following the restoration of multi-party democracy in Nepal in 1990, voice was raised in favour of the subdued and oppressed sections of the society. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal in 1990 declared discrimination on the basis of caste as punishable. Subsequently, a Committee for the Upliftment of the Dalits Upekshit Utpidit Dalitbarg Bikas Samiti under the chairmanship of the Minister of Local Development was established. In addition, the Dalit Committee was formed at the national level in 2002 for the improvement of the conditions of the Dalits.

Despite the efforts made by the State to improve the conditions of the Dalits, literacy rate among these people is as low as 10 per cent. Among the women, the literacy rate is merely 3.2 per cent. Life expectancy of the Dalits is as low as 42 per cent. Half of the Dalit children are victims of malnutrition. Disease like prolapsed uterus has proved deadly for the women.

Unequal distribution of resources and exploitative relations of production have compelled most of the Dalits to live as paupers, landless and homeless. Most of the people from these castes are ultra poor and below the poverty line. The share of the Dalits in the total cultivable land is 1 per cent only. The problem of untouchability does not allow them to improve their economic conditions, as many of them are not allowed to sell milk or engage themselves in tea stalls, hotels, restaurants, etc. As a result, their per capita income is almost lowest (US $ 39.6) in the world. As many as 80 per cent of them are forced to live a life below the poverty line.

However, studies show that the life of the Dalits in the Terai region of Nepal, including Dom, Dusadh, Musahar, Chamar, Tatma, Khatwe and Dhobi is even more deplorable than the life of the hill Dalits. They are lagging far behind the hill Dalits in education, health and several other sectors. Of the Terai Dalits, the socio-economic conditions of the women are even worse. Virtually, they are Dalits of the Dalits.

Considering the plight of the Nepalese Terai Dalit women, FES supported the Centre for Economic and Technical Studies (CETS) to organise the seminar on "Strategies for Improving the Conditions of Dalit Women of the Terai" at Gramin Bikas Prashikshan Kendra, Mujeliya, Janakpur on October 10 & 11, 2002. It was, in fact, a continuation of the support extended by FES to CETS for the Dalit cause in Nepal.

The distinguished participants and resource persons of the seminar represented people from various governmental and non-governmental agencies, political parties, Dalit organizations, academic institutions, research organizations and media. One of the basic objectives of the seminar was to draw the attention of the planners, policy makers, government, NGOs, INGOs and the donor agencies for the improvement of the socio-economic conditions of the Dalit women of the Terai in areas related to economic empowerment, sanitation and hygiene.

During the inaugural function of the seminar, Hari Bansh Jha, Executive Director of Centre for Economic and Technical Studies (CETS) welcomed the guests and participants and highlighted on the objectives and programmes of the seminar. Dalit woman, Ms. Pramila Das of Mahila Sangh, Dhanusha District inaugurated the function by lighting the candle. She felt the need to bring about change in the life of the Dalit women. In his address, Raghu Nath Das, Chairman, Nepal Dalit Sangh, Dhanusha discussed various problems faced by the Dalit women. Dev Raj Dahal, Advisor, FES, Nepal Office introduced various activities performed by FES. Addressing the function as the Chief Guest, Bhola Nath Jha, former Minister dwelt on some of the key strategies for improving the life of the Dalit women.

The seminar was divided into four sessions in which four papers were presented. In the first session, Ram Hridaya Mandal presented paper on "Untouchability and Discrimination with Terai Dalit Women," which was prepared jointly with Bindu Chaudhary, a social worker. Hari Bansh Jha and Bishnu Kunwar jointly presented paper on "Economic Contributions of the Terai Dalit Women" in the second session. In the third session, Usha Jha presented her paper on "The Dalit Women of the Terai and Economic Empowerment Programme." And finally in the fourth session, a joint paper "Awareness about Health and Sanitation among Dalit Women: Problems and Solutions" was presented by Namo Narayan Jha and Bechan Mukhiya.

In each session of the seminar, the Dalit and non-Dalit participants actively participated in discussions They raised serious concern over the deteriorating conditions of the traditional services and skills provided by the Dalit women. For example, it was felt that the stiff conditions from the modern leather industries and shoe-making factories have driven away many of the men and women of Chamar community from this occupation. The non-Dalit women who received sudeni (traditional birth attendant) training have broken the monopoly of the women of this community in this sector. Plastic industries have been affecting the production and sale of basketry items prepared by the Dom women.

It was realised that the backwardness of the Dalit women is the outcome of exploitative soico-economic and political structure of the system and, therefore, it is the primary duty of the State to pump adequate resources for the improvement of their education, health, economic and employment opportunities. Many of the seminar participants wanted that priority should be accorded to Dalit women in employment opportunities in various governmental and non-governmental bodies. Such women should be engaged widely in the processing units. The concerned agencies should help improve their traditional skills in all such fields as making shoes, basketry items, etc. in the larger interest of the nation for which Technical Training Institutes could be established in various parts of the country. They should be made aware to send their children to schools and make savings for investment in income-generating activities. Construction and proper use of latrines and sanitary practices by the Dalit women was expected to improve their socio-economic conditions. It was realised that they should be made aware to give up smoking, drinking and other social evils. Several participants were of the view that the word "Harijan" should be used for "Dalits" as the latter is derogatory term.

Some of the views expressed by the seminar participants are most valuable as that could help improve the overall conditions of the Dalit women. It might be expected that the concerned governmental and non-governmental institutions could take appropriate actions for the improvement of their conditions. Nepal cannot make progress until there is an improvement in the status of the weaker sections of the society like that of Dalit women. In this respect, the seminar on "Strategies for Improving the Conditions of Dalit Women of the Terai" could not only be treated as timely but also supplementary to the success of nascent democracy in Nepal.

Copyright©2001. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Nepal Office
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