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Statement by Women's Voice and National Federation of Dalit Women

Presented by Ruth Nanorama

Under Agenda Item5 (b) on the Rights-Based Approach to the Empowerment of Women, at the ESCAP High Level Meeting for Beijing +5; October 28, 1999

Dear Chairperson and Distinguished Participants, Sisters,

While we are committing and reaffirming our hopes of the Beijing Platform for Action into concrete actions that help us move from injustice and inequality, we are bringing one of the vital concerns of women's human rights from our sub-continent, namely that of 'Dalit' Women, the 'Untouchables' to your attention.

  1. They constitute about 250 million people and half of them are women, the most marginalised in the caste hierarchy of our societies. Among the large-scale violations of human rights perpetrated on Dalit people are the burning of their homes and fields, murder, torture and assault of women, molestation and rape, and deaths in custody. These occur in spite of Constitutional guarantees abolishing untouchability and ensuring protection of the human rights of all Indian citizens. Victims of bonded labour, child labour, prostitution and of the Devadasi system (sexual slaves dedicated to temples) are drawn largely from Dalit communities. Dalits live in separate colonies, cut off and distanced from other communities and localities. Even today, inter-caste marriages lead to large-scale violence. Dalits do not have access to public wells, or to public eating-places. They have to use separate glasses for drinking tea or coffee at village restaurant in some states of India. Atrocities and violence against Dalits basically arise in the context of 'keeping Dalits' in their place, within the social hierarchy mediated by caste and untouchability. These forms of violence amount to racial discrimination.

  2. The growing self-awareness and self-reliance of Dalits promoted by the government's policy of reservations, renaissance ideologies within the Dalit community, participation of Dalits in struggles for recognition and so on have threatened the vested interests and privileges of the hitherto dominant non-Dalit castes. Raising consciousness of Dalits and their resistance on a wide range of issues such as distribution of surplus state land, minimum wages, dignity and justice have led to brutal caste-based violence and massacres against Dalits and Dalit women in particular.

  3. The oppressed Dalit people confront barbaric atrocities and violence, denial of their basic needs and land rights, infringement of civil liberties and most important of all denial of their status as human beings. They live with dehumanising living and working conditions, impoverishment, malnutrition and poor health conditions, a high level of illiteracy and continuing social ostracism. Despite the existence of Constitutional rights and other protective laws which are meant to address their problems, Dalit communities continue to live in extreme poverty, perform menial and low-paid jobs such as scavenging and suffer >from the lack of access to basic amenities and resources. We strongly feel that the denial of such basic needs is a gross violation of the social and economic rights of the Dalit people.

  4. We strongly recognise that the Dalit women are thrice alienated on the basis of their class, caste and gender. The Dalit women have to grapple with discrimination due to caste hierarchy and untouchability on the one hand, and extreme deprivation and poverty on the other, as well as with political, legal and religio-cultural discrimination.

We therefore urge this august Assembly to

Ensuring that justice must be done to Dalit people, and especially to Dalit women, should, we urge, be a primary concern of this meeting, in keeping with the commitments to equality and human dignity set out in the Beijing Platform for Action.

Thank you.

Mrs. Ruth Manorama

Voice of Women; National Federation of Dalit Women, Asian Women's Human Rights Council.

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