Dalit women's fight for equality
“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved,” said Babasaheb Ambedkar, a social reformer who fought for the rights of the Dalit community in India in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sixty-two years after his death, however, not much has changed for Dalit women in the country.
The #MeToo movement has certainly arrived in India, causing a media buzz and creating a greater public discussion about gender-based violence, validating feminist campaigns and discourse. Though young Indian women have notably led #MeToo and made great strides in calling out sexism in their society, young Dalit women’s voices have not been prominent among them. This leads to the question of how truly impactful #MeToo and other dominant feminist movements have been in India, considering that Dalit women are arguably the most oppressed group in the country.
Casteism in India has existed for many centuries. Anthropologists and academics place the system’s roots in ancient India and trace it back to the origins of Hinduism. Shobhana Smriti, an activist working with the Uttar Pradesh division of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM), told the FBomb that the different levels of the caste system in India can be understood as a prism, at the top of which you have Brahmins, who are “priests and scholars; the gatekeepers of religion.” Next are Kshatriya, the “rulers, warriors, [and] guardians of the people.” Vaishyas are the working class of traders and agriculturists; Shudras are the laborers. Dalits are at the bottom of the system and are assigned laborious and menial jobs like cleaning latrines and sweeping the streets. According to Smriti, Dalits have faced, and still do face, atrocities like not having the right to reproductive rights, to education, and to live free of violence.
Women are usually the prime victims of these atrocities “as they are the easiest targets,” Smriti added. “In large numbers, Dalit women are harassed, kidnapped, raped, and brutally murdered every day in India — yet, we do not hear their stories, and their issues do not get the same kind of coverage as other victims from upper-castes.”
Smriti’s claims are reinforced by various reports on the situation of Dalit women in the country. According to a report by the organization Overcoming Violence, 21 Dalit women are raped every week, and less than 2 percent of this population gets justice from the courts.
This is where the Dalit Women Fight comes in. DWF is the online wing of a broader organization called All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM); the organization recognizes the extreme persecution and oppression Dalit women particularly face on a daily basis. The organization is led by young Dalit women, a fact that provides a “unique foundation and structure which differentiates it from other feminist or Dalit organizations in India,” says Suman Devathiya, who runs the Rajasthan wing of AIDMAM. DWF works in an intersectional manner and deals with multi-layered issues, like how the patriarchy compounds caste-based discrimination, as well as age-based issues. A young Dalit leadership of DWF has therefore affected their work — they are aware of the fact that young Dalit women face additional obstacles such as increased vulnerability to sexual violence and child marriage. For example, Dalit parents try to marry their daughters at very young ages because they fear that they will be raped or abducted if they are single. Child marriage, in turn, impedes these young women from completing their education.
Though the organization is based in New Delhi, teams composed of around 35 young Dalit women activists work in six different states of North India, including Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha. Dalit women in all of these places have “deliberately been suppressed and kept illiterate for many years now, which is why we are not as educated and confident as we should be,” stated Mohini, who is part of AIDMAM’s Haryana campaign. Dalit Women Fight, therefore, focuses on four major areas of advocacy: survivors’ support, grassroots activism, leadership development, and international advocacy. The organization trains Dalit women to use social media and self-defense and teaches them about digital security and women’s rights. These programs “nurture [Dalit women] into the future leaders of the campaign,” Anju, a spokesperson for and national coordinator of Dalit Women Fight, told the FBomb.
Anju believes that social media has particularly played an instrumental part in implementing the agenda of Dalit Women Fight. “Dalit women face horrendous crimes every day, but we do not see the mainstream media and prominent forums reporting those,” she said. “Therefore, it is upon us to create a space for ourselves where we can talk about the issues that we face.” Dalit Women Fight believes the online spaces they have created via social media “act as great platforms to not only engage Dalit women from around the country but also to highlight our issues and voice our concerns.”
Dalit Women Fight also campaigns to impact policies and urge government and authorities to take stricter actions against the atrocities faced by Dalit women. Though the 1989 Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (commonly known as SC/ST Act) aims to prevent atrocities and discrimination against the Dalit community and assigns punishments like penalties and arrests, this act is often not enforced or is abused, according to Anju. “We work closely with the survivors of gender- and caste-based violence to make sure that they are aware of the rights that the Indian constitution provides them, and encourage them to get their cases registered with the police, guide them on how to use the correct law sections, and strive to ensure that they get justice from courts,” Anju says.
Two very integral parts of Dalit Women Fight’s activism include the Dalit Women Self-Respect March and Dalit Women Speak Out Conference, which Anju describes as “for the Dalit women, by the Dalit women.” The most recent conference took place in December 2017 at Savitribai Phule University in Pune, India and over 400 Dalit women from all over India attended. The platform served as a great opportunity for networking and strengthening the Dalit women web. Organizing such a large conference, Anju added, “gave us a feeling of accomplishment because we brought together Dalit women from different corners of India who talked about different issues like Dalit women’s health, our budget, our activism, etc.” The Dalit Women Self-Respect March was started in 2012 in Haryana and has since been carried out in all the six states in which the organization works, including more than 200 districts and hundreds of villages in those areas. Planning this march involves members of the organization going door to door in select communities to talk to Dalit women and organizing community meetings to engage with their problems and understand their issues. The organization also involves local authorities to try to come up with viable solutions for the Dalit communities.
Representatives at DWF feel that the recent wave of feminism in India is refreshing, but that upper-caste feminists still avoid talking about issues that particularly affect the Dalit community. “They [upper-caste feminists] have bigger platforms [than us], a more prominent voice that reaches out to a wider audience, and yet, we feel that we are fighting this battle alone,” Shobhana said. She also feels that the Indian government tries to shroud the atrocities happening to Dalits in order to maintain its image globally.
Despite extreme oppression and isolation, the anti-caste feminists leading Dalit Women Fight and All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch demonstrate their strength and resilience to stand their ground and lift up themselves as well as their entire community. They are continuously resisting patriarchal and casteist violence and striving hard to make India a country where Dalit women are not only provided with equal rights as citizens but also treated with dignity and acknowledged as equals. By working on the ground with victims of caste-based atrocities and providing leadership opportunities for young Dalit women, DWF is committed to filling in the gaps of new feminist movements in India and calling for greater intersectionality of caste and gender in their activism.
Amna is one of the four fellows who were selected as part of the Young Feminist Media Fellowship between FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund and The Fbomb. A pilot project launched this year, the fellowship is an attempt to counter dominant narratives that provide little to no space to achievements and accomplishments of young feminist organizers, giving an opportunity to young feminist storytellers to tell the story themselves of young feminist trends around them.
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