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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/

Failure to implement national legislation also extends to the Bonded Labor Act, the Elimination of the Practice of Manual Scavenging Act and the Prevention of Atrocities Act which the Indian government enacted in 1989 almost symbolizing the idea that atrocities against lower caste communities had failed to subside after almost 40 years of independence and that they had taken on a very violent character over time. Some of the acts specifically listed and criminalized under the atrocities act include parading a woman naked, forcing Dalit to eat human waste, poisoning village wells, securing bonded labor and gang-raping Dalit and tribal women. This actually is an act which also covers tribal women who are a strong part of the labor force in India. In 1992, there was an amendment to the constitution that allowed for reservations of seats in local village counsels for women, and within that a quota for Dalit women. Many people saw this as a watershed for the political rights and power over development in a village for Dalit women. The implementation of this, like that of many other acts in India, still has a long way to go, and many still believe in the power and the promise of having Dalit women come to the forefront at the village level and of taking command of justice and the distribution of development in their own communities. Unfortunately, many women contesting these seats have themselves been gang-raped or paraded naked in villages to intimidate others and send the message that this type of political change, even under constitutional protection, is not something that the community is ready for or willing to tolerate.

I also want to address a little bit about what the international challenges are here. And of course looking at the stream of international laws, the Bill of Human Rights and many of the treaties that India is party to one would think that many of the cases that I have mentioned would no longer exist in India. India is party to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against women, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and has signed but not ratified the Convention Against Torture. However, the tortuous treatment of Dalit women by the police, one of whom I met and interviewed in 1998, is quite common and thus makes it even more difficult for women to come forward, demand their labor rights and demand protection from sexual violence against them.

There have been many positive developments however, so I do not want to leave you with such a grim picture. I think it is very important to point out that the issue of Dalit rights and the issue of caste discrimination as an obnoxious source of human rights violations-not just in India but in other parts of Asia and West Africa, and dare I say even among the Indian diaspora in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere-has actually come to light internationally within the last few years. The very fact that we are sitting here in the Asia Society and having this discussion tonight I think is testament to that. And it is also testament to a growing and inspiring movement in India led by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights which is a grassroots campaign connecting over 200 non-governmental organizations in 14 states. Beyond that, it is connected to solidarity bodies in 12 countries asking for the international community to assist India in the long overdue task of bringing the on-the-ground reality in compliance social rights vision of India's constitution. Most recently this was done at the World Conference Against Racism in Durbin, controversial for many reasons, but also a watershed for the Dalit movement. Over 200 Dalit activists participated in that conference, demanding that the word caste be included anywhere in the agenda of the conference, which was a conference on racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The Indian government however, throwing a lot of its political and economic weight around, managed to successfully ensure that the word caste did not appear once in any of the documents of the conference, even though the effect of caste is on 250 million people worldwide. What the conference also did was to become an organizing tool allowing various marginalized communities (Roma, African-American, indigenous activists, etc.) to join hands with the Dalit, and to call on international partners to join hands with grassroots groups in India to ask the Indian government to effectively enforce its own laws, and ultimately to remove the manufacturing of poverty and bring Dalit women outside the bonds of their labor and exploitation. Since the conference and the work that the national campaign has done on the ground there actually has been incredible developments within India. For so many years the Dalit movement did not include women and the women's movement did not include Dalit, and this is beginning to change. I will end on that positive note because there is a lot to be hopeful for. And I want to thank the Asia Society for holding this event and also thank Sainath for his amazing work in documenting this in photograph and in writing for many, many years. Thank you.