In that remote village, Vanathaipuram of Theni District, late at that night, the researcher and another social activist, started the meeting for Datot men’s group. While discussing about the village problems, suddenly one among them in the group cried out in anguish, ‘when I enter my house, if I find a slipper of a caste man at the door, I cannot get inside my house that night’ and wept bitterly. His painful voice unveiled the agony of the Dalit women who was imprisoned inside that house. In these remote villages, a Dalit woman could neither own the right of her body nor ownership for her life.
A similar situation was enumerated by one of my fellow activist who was working with the Dalit women in Karnataka. There young Dalit girls were dedicated as ‘Devadasi’ (slave for God) to the temple without marriage, which was known as ‘temple prostitution’. Any rich caste men had ownership over these devadasi women. These Dalit women were thrown to the dehumanized living and were often victimized by their own husbands and fathers. These agonizing experiences call for grassroots intervention of я rupture from the rigid cultural practices.
Illiteracy — Critical Impediment
One of the major causes of the devastating life situation of Dalit women can be attributed to illiteracy. Around 58% of Dalit women are illiterate and functional literacy is seldom found among them. They are for far from the access to the basic right of women education. Dalit girls face numerous impediments to go to school. In villages, the schools are widely situated only in the high caste area.
In the recent past exceptionally few balwadis are found in the Dalit residential area i.e. called ‘colony’. Those who dare to step into the formal women educational institutions, as first generation learners require more supportive system including finance, uniform, tuition, motivation from patents, encouragement of teachers, etc. They are not able to meet pay the financial requirements.
As young girls, most of them do not have proper clothing to go to schools and depend on the free uniforms. While they dress well and go to schools, they are criticized by the caste people. The other caste teachers often compare the Dalit girls with other children and belittle them. They find it difficult to cope with the high standard of women education especially to learn Mathematics and English.
In some schools, these girls are asked to sit separately in the classes and in most of the schools they do not dine with other caste children (Muthumary. J). Their own parents due to lack of awareness, hardly motivate them or encourage them to go to schools. On the contrary, the Dalit girls are much appreciated if they brought more monetary benefit to the family even by skipping the classes.
Poverty among Dalit women is very high. They live in a substandard living condition. Most of them live in single room houses, built and given by the Government under different schemes. The poor living condition do not offer the privacy or basic sanitation facilities for them. Neither has it given the Dalit children an atmosphere of learning at home. According to Ghosh (1997), Dalits contribution in the economic sphere can be categorized as artisan and service sectors. The artisan sectors are engaged in cultural activities. They play drums and dance in temple festivals, death houses, etc. But the service sector activities differ in rural and urban areas.
In rural areas, they are engaged in agricultural and allied activities. Especially large number of Dalit women works as agricultural coolies. Rarely Dalits own agriculture lands. Most of these women who work as agricultural coolie are physically exploited by the landowners. They are also demanded to do extra household works in the land owner’s house. Being an unorganized sector, they never get any monetary, material or maternal benefits from them.
In urban areas, the Dalit women face greater struggles as domestic workers and doers of menial jobs. Largely scavenging activities in rich houses and in public lavatories are done by Dalit women. They also do the household chores like cleaning vessels, washing clothes, etc. Large section of Dalit women, work as assistants in construction sites. They are paid less comparing to their counterparts and often become victims of molestation.
Working tirelessly and sacrificing their comforts for the wellbeing of their children and husband do not assure a Dalit woman equal status in the family. The money brought home after a hard labour is often snatched away by the drunkard husbands. If they do not oblige they are assaulted cruelly. The Government has introduced Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGREGS), which has assured 100 days of work for one of the below poverty line (BPL) family member. These women were compelled to go for these jobs along with the traditional occupations.
With the limited earning, the Dalit women began to do saving. But these amounts are often abused by their men for alcoholic consumption or gambling. Thus within the families the women could have any say often. Moreover their participation in village (Gram Sabha) meetings was negligible. They were not allowed to sit equal with other participants in the meeting hall. Though Dalits had a reservation in contesting elections, the elected members were not given freedom to exercise their power. It was still worse in the case of Dalit women, neither their husbands nor other caste men allow them to function freely.
Though the Indian constitution guarantees equality, justice, and human dignity for all and bans discrimination the basis of caste or gender, seldom it is actualized in rural India. In almost 80 per cent of the Indian villages, the untouchability practices are prevalent (Shah, 2002). The researcher who was working with the Dalit women witnessed this denial of human rights and practice of untouchability and are manifested in multiple forms of discrimination such as exclusion from temples, homes, and rituals; prohibitions against using the village well or studying in the village school; and a prohibition against touching any caste person or food.
It is a violent and cruel social mechanism by which Dalit women are forced into a subordinate position. According to National Commission for Dalit Human Rights (2006) on an average three Dalit women is raped every day.
Unlike the rapes that are done in insecure common place or in public avenues, a Dalit woman is not even safe and secure within her home. As arrogant forms of caste oppression, any high caste person could walk into her house and claimed the right over her in abusing the woman sexually. The painful dehumanizing reality was that neither this Dalit woman nor her husband was able to raise their voice against this forced illegitimate sexual violence.
The human dignity of a Dalit woman was denied within her own house. Such violations not only affected Dalit women, but also their counterparts who felt that their human dignity is being trampled upon.
Silent Deaths. Process of Struggle
The silent cry of Dalit women said that they had been consistently depending upon the caste people for their cow dunk, firewood, water, employment, etc. Consequently they had become voiceless to express their anger, resentment disagreement and revolt. Hence their deep conviction revealed that their dependence level has to be done away with and they had to become independent to manage their life.
The process of becoming independent requires basic women education, economic independence through employment and emancipatory intervention. It ascertained that only when they are empowered, a society of human dignity, social respect, and equality can be created.
In the villages, early in the morning, it is a cultural practice that the women splash water mixed with cow dunk. Even for this cow dunk, they had to stand in front of caste people houses, as most of the Dalits in the village could not afford to own a cow. When it comes to the drinking water, again they were forced to go to their farm well or common wells in caste people living area. The rural Dalit poor women hardly own kerosene or gas stove. Even if they received free LPG gas stove from the Government, to pay for the refilling of the gas cylinders were too tough for many. Hence, a large number of them depended on firewood. As the Dalit women do not own garden or farm, again they had to go the caste people. Some of them have one or two goats, for their fodder too they depend on the landowners.
Strive towards Independence
The process of breaking away the degree of dependence required that they are educated and given an alternative employment. As a large number of the adult population was illiterate, lifelong learning or the non-formal women education with various training played a vital role.
Women education is one of a powerful tool for liberation. As the formal women education was not feasible, functional literacy had to be given prime focus. All the members decided that they would no more use thumb impression but would learn to sign their names. It was the first step of the lifelong learning towards their women empowerment. It boosted their confidence as even in the banks they were able sign boldly.
Training programs, which are identified to be an effective tool to empower women, were employed both formally and informally. It included human rights education, leadership training, health education, folklore, entrepreneurship, managerial skills, etc. They were given training in small and large groups, both inside and outside the villages. It exposed them to various life realities and widened their contact with like-minded people. These women education programs awakened their awareness and strengthened their bargaining power.
Monitoring and evaluation were part of their training component Every week on Saturdays and the last day of the month a planning and review meeting were organized for the better implementation of the program. Changes and modification were done according to die need of the local people for enhancing the quality of the programmes.
The process of humanization of Dalit women began with individual and collective search for occupational opportunities. It provoked antagonistic sentiments among the non-Dalits as they feared that these women may not continue to do menial jobs. In seven villages the women had successfully achieved the collective vision of alternative employment. Their first step begun with the participatory appraisal of the status quo followed by regular training sessions organized for them in their respective villages and in the common places. Meanwhile, they also kept doing small savings which helped them to be more economically independent within their house initially. Later they approached the nationalized banks for getting milch animals under the government schemes. These provided them with the occupation and slowly they stopped going to the landlords for work. There was, however, a lot of constraint in marketing the milk.
As the women were convinced of their cause, they took the effort to start cooperative milk societies. Now they operate as the chief functionaries in these societies. There were numerous threats directly and indirectly from the other caste groups. But they addressed them successfully.
In another village women had ventured in undertaking a brick making unit since 2005. Earlier they were employees of this sector; with their collective effort they were able to reach the state of owning their own brick-making unit. They were able to make use of the revolving fund available for them in the nationalized banks. In another village, surrounded by the mountains, there were lots of herbal plants; thus they were able to start a herbal medicinal plant unit.
With the training given to these women on how to become entrepreneurs and with the available resources, they started collecting the rare and highly medicinal herbal plants and marketed it. Per day they are able to prepare an average of hundred bottles of herbals and earn a decent income for their livelihood.
Emancipation of Women
The journey from victimization to victory was a slow but a steady process. It was riddled with threats of every kind. The emerging model of emancipatory intervention comprised of three dimensional approach of cognition, conviction and confidence.
The process of emancipation began with the deep realization that the inherited belief of accepting all dehumanizing practices as ‘fate’ and with the helpless attitude should be challenged. It had to begin with the initial changes in their perception. They were taught to perceive the dehumanizing practices as ‘human rights violation’ than as ‘fate’. This process of diagnosis had series of reflections that developed their cognitive understanding of the issues involved. It was done with women’s and men’s groups separately in the meetings. Later both the group leaders were given the opportunity to express their anguish and concerns.
They had to get convinced that they can live a life with human dignity and respect without depending on the caste people. And they need not be labourers forever but they too could be owners of assets and manage their marketing process. Once they were able to reduce me dependence level and become independent, it enabled them to say ‘no’ for forced abuse. It was quite challenging and threatening. In this process, not everybody was able to come along, but even the merger changes had made a tremendous difference and impact in their outlook.
Path of Interdependence
When Dalit women were able to stand on their own as a result they were able to restore their human dignity, social respect and equality. As one of the first Dalit women leader Ms.Mayawati, former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has proved herself as leader of Bhujan Samaj party and became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh twice or thrice. If she could make it, certainly other Dalit women of Indian state too can rise above all oppressions. This positive outlook and hope enabled the Dalit women to move forward. They believed that only they could restore the human dignity that was lost, social respect that was denied and equality that was absent, others could only be sojourners. It was quite encouraging to witness that these poor Dalit women of the remote villages in Tamil Nadu were able to reach the state of interdependence and could dismantle the cycle of oppressive violence.
The continuous collective efforts of these women had brought numerous changes at personal, family and community level. At the personal level, women who were able to become entrepreneurs had instilled greater self-confidence among the younger generation. In their families, they had been a motivating force for their children to move forward in their higher women education. At the community level, these women went beyond the cultural norm of registering the lands in men’s name. Fifty two of them bought lands from their earnings and registered it in their names. Later they built good houses also in those plots. The profits of the milk societies also enabled them to buy gold ornaments.
Some of their collective attempts gave them the confidence to meet the Government officials such as panchayat president, BDO, tahsildar and district collector and demand for their basic rights like drinking water, bus stop, land patta, community certificate, income certificate, ration card, etc. Few of the women leaders were elected as ward members, councilors, and presidents.
The awareness and motivation level of the women had reduced the levels of school dropouts in the villages. They are convinced that educating Dalit children is the best way to restoring human dignity of the future generation.
In order to safeguard the younger generation, it is inevitable to care for their women education. As the first generation learners, many of them had to move forward in the ladder of women education. Hence the school going children were given after school programmes to foster their learning abilities. Consequently they were able to move out of the web of oppression as bonded labourers. Remarkably, some of the young Dalit girls have reached the a historical milestone of a college women education.
For Further Progress
For consistent growth and progress towards emancipation, self-awareness, and social conscientization has to be imparted systematically for Dalit women. In this, they also require the support and assistance from the government and non¬government organizations. They also need regular informal training and accompaniment. It is vital that in times of need free legal aid has to be made available to them. Similarly, more proactive and pro-dalit women policies and programs have to be promoted. However, it is crystal clear that in this transformative process, three ‘C approach of cognition, conviction and confidence can certainly lead Dalit women towards gender equity, social inclusion, and sustainable development.
This process necessitates the support of her husband is inevitable for Dalit women. Thus, Dalit men need to be oriented towards the rights of their counterpart. They too have to be assertive in safeguarding the rights of their wives from other men. As violence against Dalits is used as a mechanism to oppress Dalits, both Dalit women and men have to be taught self-protection mechanism. The groundswell that began in rural pockets of Tamil Nadu has shown that the emancipatory intervention has proved to be a successful weapon in the hands of Dalits in enabling them to move from victimization to victory.
From Wider Perspective
- Dalit women have to be organized as a movement
- Networking with other Dalit women movements must be fostered
- More training on assertive skills, and right based approach has to be given
- Exposure visits could be arranged for leaders at least
- Income generation programmes (received from Government) i.e. milk animals can be formed as a cooperative milk society in some more villages
- Dalit young girl’s formal women education has to be given top most priority. First of all, we need to insist on their primary women education and many more have to be admitted for higher women education. If possible a rural community college for Dalit girls can be started with your help.
- ‘Dalit right cell’ can be formed to monitor whether the welfare schemes are reaching the target group
- Family counseling center can be opened for them
In Indian society, violence and discrimination against Dalit women are horrible and inhuman. The age old oppression may not be eradicated immediately. Despite the various developments, still the pain of Dalit women has been seldom reduced. To fight against oppressive practices, various struggles are on progress. Over the years the works among the Dalit women have given great positive results in a slower pace. It has offered greater hope that the dehumanized life status of Dalit women can be demolished and they can be raised to a new status with human dignity and right. There is a greater need to focus on their well-being of Dalit women. The more committed hearts come forward to work for them sooner will be a new dawn in the Dalit women. May the Dalit women, who are in lowest rung of the Indian society and their sojourners do not lose heart but continue their the journey of being educated, employed and empowered!