This incident of September 2007 was one of the worst and most apparent cases of discrimination one could think of: Mrs. Dhanwanti Devi Meghwal is Pradhan, or leader, of a block in India’s Jodhpur district. She had been elected as representative at the block level for Scheduled Caste Women. At an inaugural ceremony of a cattle fair, she was about to raise the flag, when a member of the local assembly, Mr. Babu Singh Rathore suddenly stepped forward to stop her from raising the flag. More details on page 22 of this UN End Poverty 2015 Report (pdf).
His reasons? She belonged to the group known as Dalits—one of the lowest castes in India—and she was a woman. What happened was not merely a simple case of discrimination against women. It was, in fact, a classic example of the challenge that Dalit women in the Rajasthan state of India have faced since the caste system was put in place. It was a double whammy—class discrimination and gender discrimination.
Gender and class discrimination in India have been among the chief culprits as to why many people, particularly women, are living and are caught in the vicious cycle of extreme poverty. It is a legacy that the Dalits are forced to pass down from generation to generation.
75% of Dalit girls drop out of primary school (pdf), despite strict affirmative action laws reserving seats for Dalit children in school, according to the data from the National commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes 2000. The dropout rate at every level of education for girls exceeded those of boys because of the strict observance of traditional gender roles.
Dalit girls who wanted to pursue higher studies in universities could not do so because of limited opportunities and access to resources. According to the End Poverty 2015 Report, India’s Ministry of labor found out that 85% of the Dalit women are landless, work for subsistence wages, and have the most horrible occupations.
The income that Dalit women earn is not even enough to put food on the table. Their poverty has made them highly vulnerable to gender-based and class-based violence, like sexual harassment and physical assaults. Many have also reported that their houses have been attacked and burned just because they were Dalit women.
The Indian constitution’s existing provisions to afford every citizen equal rights and opportunities are not enough. Life has to be breathed into such provisions, such that they will become actions and not just words that lie dormant in the pages of the law of the land. Every 20 minutes, a crime against a Dalit is committed.
Traditional societies like India need to rethink the role of women as well as the significance of the caste system, if it is to consider development as its top agenda. There is a pressing need for women to break free from being limited to the confines of the house. There is a pressing need for women and men to change their attitudes towards the role of women because mere mindsets are integral in either enhancing or suppressing the role of women and their contribution towards development.