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Visible Work, Invisible Women

"Brickworkers"  from the exhibit, "Visible Work, Invisible Women"  (P. Sainath/

"Brickworkers" from the exhibit, "Visible Work, Invisible Women" (P. Sainath/

On November 3, just a few weeks ago, a forty-five year old Dalit woman was paraded half-naked in a small town in the state of Bihar. She was paraded around this way by a group of people who wanted to teach a lesson to her family for not giving away their claim over a piece of land. The district superintendent of police, when interviewed, said that the story was not true, that it was completed concocted, but after some pressure finally admitted that the Dalit woman was in fact physically tortured and tormented. To this day no case has been filed against those who committed this act.

On October 13, five Dalit were lynched and some of their corpses burned in the state of Haryana because they were accused of killing and skinning a cow. No arrests have been made. Instead a case under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act has been filed against the deceased.

On April 5, four upper-caste men abducted a 14-year-old Dalit girl just outside Japur in Rajasthan and gang raped her over a period of three days. Upon her return to the village, she was told that if her family filed any case against the perpetrators they would not be allowed to work on the fields anymore and would face further physical violence.

What all these cases have in common are the extremely violent conditions under which the Dalit struggle for livelihood is subverted, often with the complicity of the state. Sexual and other forms of violence against Dalit women, who make up the majority of agricultural laborers in India, has become a potent weapon in the hands of the state and in the upper-caste community in preserving the status quo…the status quo that is displayed in the photographs behind us. The situation of Dalit generally is not limited to India. Caste systems also exist in other South Asian countries, including in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. A form of caste system exists in Japan, and indeed there are also caste systems among indigenous populations in West Africa. Hidden under the guise of the world's largest democracy, over 160,000 million Dalit toil as agricultural laborers or other types of laborers subsisting on very menial wages in India. Bonded labor, forced prostitution, exploitation of labor are often seen as the lot of the developing world, and in India certainly poverty has offered a very interesting and easy explanation for a lot of the abuses that we see today. What is less seen-and I think what the photographs here and the text that accompanies them helps to bring out-is that poverty in India (like in many countries) is manufactured and maintained by those with a vested interest in preserving a political and economic status quo. India's tagline as the world's largest democracy-and indeed as a nation that has incredibly progressive laws, an incredible constitution that has been a role model for many other constitutions, and a very, very radical affirmative action program-helps to hide many of the abuses Dalit women in particular endure as the majority of the labor force in India.

Stepping back a little bit…allocation of labor on the bases of caste is of course one of the fundamental tenants of the caste system. Within the system, Dalit have been assigned tasks that are deemed far too ritually polluting or impure to be given to others. Therefore, a majority of manual scavengers, some of which are pictured in the photographs, belong to the Dalit community. These are people who, from morning to night, will carry night soil or human excreta on their heads or often with their bare hands, clean up animal carcasses, and perform other types of sanitation functions that are deemed too polluting for anybody else to touch. Agricultural laborers work for a few kilograms of rice or less than a dollar a day-the majority of them are also women. According to government statistics, an estimated one million people are manual scavengers. A majority of them are actually employed by the state, the same state that has outlawed this practice. Although employment by the state means that they get paid only 30-40 rupees (60-80 cents) a month, it is often a much better situation than being employed in a private household- where working for an entire month, cleaning the toilet of one family, would mean earning only 5-10 rupees (10-20 cents) and perhaps some food.

For obvious reasons Dalit, and other lower and tribal castes cannot survive on these wages. It pushes them increasingly into debt and into bonded labor, a system in which upper-caste creditors and employers give loans…sometimes for the payment of weddings, sometimes for dowry, sometimes for the buying of wood for a proper cremation and funeral, and sometimes to just put food on the table. The loans are accompanied by exorbitantly high interest rates and a great deal of corruption and police collusion in doctoring the books such that the loans are never actually paid off. Bondage is then passed down from generation to generation, so that the children of bonded laborers, and their children, will end up inheriting the debt of their families and their parents. There are over 40 million bonded laborers in India, 15 million of them are children, and the majority of them are Dalit