India’s 2011 census stated that 16% of the Indian population, some 200 million people, are Dalits. Historically, being a Dalit in India means being at the bottom of an outdated and abysmal caste system. This idea still persists and as a result, Dalit people are vulnerable to a host of human rights abuses. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable must also struggle against patriarchal structures. A UN report from February 2018 highlights the fact that the discrimination Dalit women face, alongside factors such as lack of healthcare and sanitation, has resulted in Dalit women living, on average, 14.6 years less than ‘higher’ caste women. This is a shocking statistic. The report emphasises the fact that it is not just being of a lower-caste and one’s gender that acts as a barrier to mobility, opportunity and equality. The colour of one’s skin can also play a factor in how you are treated in India. A fair complexion is praised and promoted across society, through the media and beauty ideals. As a result, racism becomes a pertinent issue. If you are a dark-skinned Dalit women, your prospects in Indian society are not as fortunate as those of higher-caste, fairer women. This is particularly true in terms of employment with statistical evidence demonstrating that Dalit women are less likely to gain employment and when they do, they earn significantly less than their non-Dalit female counterparts. Literacy rates and levels of education of Dalit peoples are also significantly lower than their ‘higher’ caste counterparts. This huge problem persists across the nation and needs continuous attention.
There is a radical Indian feminist push within the country that seeks to move away from more homogenous feminist movements that fail to take into account the further oppression one may face as not just a woman, but a Dalit woman. As a result, we have seen the development of ‘intersectional feminism’ at both a grassroots and international level. Both Dalit and non-Dalit Indian women have used the concept of intersectional feminism to raise the profile of injustices against the Dalits. The ‘Dalit Women Fight‘ in India and the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO) in Nepal are two such groups campaigning for visibility and change. There are other platforms that have established themselves as a means of articulating the voice of Dalit women, notably All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) which is a movement born from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). Womankind Worldwide is an international women’s organisation that lends its support to groups such as FEDO. The voice of these Dalit women is growing in prominence. This gives hope to those that believe in the improvement of the welfare and wellbeing of Dalit women in a country that has historically seen them marginalised and oppressed.
The position of Dalit women in India, a nation infamous for its failure to protect its women and facilitate true equality, is deplorable. Whilst there are grassroots and international efforts making noise, this is not enough. The Indian government has continuously been the subject of great criticism for the position of its women, minorities and those from ‘lower’ castes, yet they continually fail to do anything substantive about it. The international community needs to raise the profile of Dalit women in India and apply pressure where it is needed to ensure that the future for these women is one of hope and change.