Plight of Rural Dalit Women in India: a sociological Analysis Rajendra Prasad Jaiswal Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith, India Source of this article

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Plight of Rural Dalit Women in India: A Sociological Analysis

Rajendra Prasad Jaiswal

Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith, India

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Dalits (the most oppressed and lower caste segment of Indian society) are one of the most unfortunate groups in India which suffer from numerous kinds of exploitative and oppressive practices of Indian society. Hinduism has degraded them beyond imagination. Psychological, social and cultural proscription have unleashed tremendous amount of miseries and hardships to them. The term Dalit is chiefly used for those who are ex-untouchables in Indian (mainly Hindu) society, and are extremely poor, landless, illiterate and exploited. They are the products of highly discriminatory and inhuman nature of the functioning of Indian caste system (Beteille: 1976; Bhoite and Bhoite: 1976; Zelliot: 1992; Chanda and Mitra: 2003; Rege: 2003). An entire segment of population was assigned ‘unclean’ occupations like scavenging, flaying, tanning etc. and converted into untouchables. The attitude of higher caste people

towards the untouchables even today has not changed much.

In the recent past, several restrictions were imposed on them like not allowing them to wear shirts or vests, not to use ornament, sandals and umbrellas, to use only earthenware vessels at homes, not to enter cities after sun-set and before sunrise, and keep a prescribed distance of steps from upper-caste Hindus. They were thus totally ostracized (Sharma, 1958, Issacs: 1965; Ahuja: 1999). The excess committed against them under the garb of untouchability by and large continue to exist even today. In spite of the welfare programmes and ameliorative measures taken by the State, there has been social sabotage side by side by the dark forces of Indian society who do not want their progress and believe in the principles of equity and justice (Roy Burman: 1977). Even after fifty nine years of Independence, Indian society has not been able to deliver justice and dignity to them. Atrocities against them are on increase. Every two hours, one Dalit is assaulted, everyday 3 Dalit women are raped, two Dalit are murdered and two Dalit houses are burnt (India: 1995). The increase in the number of crimes against them is evident from the fact that as against 180 cases registered with police in 1955, the number of cases increased to 18,336 in 1991, and to 32,990 in 1995 (India:1995). They are mostly exploited by usurping their lands, giving them low wages and using them as bonded labour.

There have been reports particularly from the state of Bihar that Dalits have been massacred by higher caste gangsters and feaudals who have formed their private armies (India: 2005). The reason of massacred was a long-standing tussle between upper caste landlords and landless Dalits formers of the area. The total lack of political will to tackle the menace has been the bane of Bihar. Today, the percentage of Dalit population in India has substantially increased. According to the Census Report of 2001(India: 2005), they formed nearly 16.5% or slightly more than 169 million Population in India. One out of every six Indian belongs to Dalit Category.

The important Dalit caste are:

Chamar, Dusadh, Regar, Musahar, Bhuiya, Dhobi, Pasi, Dom, Bhogta, Halalkhar, etc. in north India and

Paraiyans, Pallans Chakkilis in Tamil Nadu, and Mehar, Belsi, Bauri, Meghwal, Rajhans, Mazhobhi Sikhs, etc. in other states. The highest numbers of Dalits are found in Uttar Pradesh (21%) where the present study has been conducted, followed by West Bengal (12%), Bihar (9%), Tamil Nadu (8%), and Rajasthan (5.5%) and so on. (India: 1998). Thus, about two-third of these people are concentrated in six states. About 84 percent of them live in villages and are working as cultivators, sharecroppers, marginal farmers, and agricultural laborers, etc. About 42 percent of Dalits fall in the category of workers, of the total workers, 4 percent work as scavengers, while the rest work as weavers (12%), fisherman (8%), toddy-tappers (7%), basket and rope makers (5%), washarmen (5%), artisans (1%), shoe-makers (1%), and so on.

Most of Dalits live below poverty line and are illiterate (India: 2001). The main socio-economic problems affecting the bulk of Dalit population are-Chronic indebtness, landlessness/land alienation, lack of education, lack of productive assets, forced labour and prostitution, lack of ‘minimum wages’, child labour, social and religious discrimination, etc. Because of the perpetual landlessness and only seasonal employment, chronic indebtness has been a concomitant problem with Dalits. The lot of Dalits in the rural areas (where most of them live) has been pitiable because their existence in characterized by all sorts of deprivation, exploitation, discrimination, injustice and violence against them (Maher: 1998).

The Dalit Women:

The situation of Dalit women in India is just unexplainable. They are one among the worst sufferers of socio-cultural, political and economic exploitation, injustice, oppression and violence. Their woes and miseries are boundless. They are the ones who form ‘real’ teeming millions in India, and are affected by all kinds of social and economic oppressions. They are mainly employed in unorganized sector of the Indian economy as daily wagers and marginal workers. The lack of adequate employment opportunities, limited skills and illiteracy have made their mobility extremely limited and prevent them from achieving independent status. The persistent gap between consumption and expenditure leads them to perpetual indebtness. The proportion of Dalit women living below the poverty line is just enormous. They do not enjoy any social security, maternity benefits, pension schemes or any other kind of economic protection. With the adoption of policies of globalization in India, their employment opportunities are likely to be further reduced as they will have to suffer from competition from foreign technology and modern methods of agriculture. They are oppressed by the broader Hindu society, their own community’s men and also their own husbands. Thus, they are triply disadvantageous. The issues of Dalit women are different from that of other Indian women.

They have been deprived from all kinds of human rights, education, income, dignity, social status, religious rights, etc. They have to face outside world necessiated by economic deprivation, and an urgent need to earn for livelihood. Thus, their subjugation is more acute- being Dalit they are treated with great contempt by upper caste men and women alike, and their own men folk. Despite that they have hugely contributed to the development of India by their seer hard work and labour. But, their contributions have never been recognized. Their voices and protests are almost invisible. In fact, when we talk of marginalization of women in the development process, or feminization of poverty or woman’s contribution to the unorganized sector in India, we are referring to them without even being conscious about their specificity (Chandra & Mitra: 2003). It is regrettable to note that mainstream women’s movement in India also ignored and neglected the pitiable condition of Dalit women. Very few literature on the life of Dalit women have been generated so far (Verma: 1999).

Violence Against Dalit Women

Violence against women in India has never been uncommon phenomenon. Women in the Indian society have been victims of humiliation, torture and harassment as long as one can observe from written records and newspaper reports. Dalit women have been the object of violence in greater degree from their own men folk, and also from higher caste men. They have been subjected to rape, molestation, kidnapping, abduction, homicide, physical and mental torture, immoral traffic and sexual abuse. There is a tendency of increase in the cases of violence against Dalit women.

According to the National Crime Statistics (India:2001) there were 2,824 reported cases of rape, 4,591 vases of serious injuries, 517 cases of murder, 2,261 cases of kidnapping and abduction, 8,527 cases of physical torture, 10,425 cases of eve teasing, 3,588 cases of molestation and sexual harassment, 556 cases of importation of girls, and 4,452 cases under Immoral Tariff Act. Thus, there were 37,841 registered cases of violence against Dalit Women in the year 2001 alone (India: 2001). It should be noted that in India about 90 percent crimes against Dalit women are not reported to the police for the fear of social ostracism and threat to personal safety and security. Also the legal proceedings are so complicated, tardy, time consuming, costly and unfriendly to Dalits that usually they do not approach courts or other law enforcing agencies for their redressal. Besides, a huge number of Dalit women are dragged in the profession of flesh-trade and prostitution.

Many of these unfortunate women are minor and innocent girls who are lured by unscrupulous touts and agents into this profession. The religious practices like Devadashi and Sevikas of the temples in south and western India also force them into this profession and are given religious colour. The Present Study Now, we turn our attention to a micro-empirical study which is based on 300 Dalit women belonging to four villages of Saidpur Development Block of Gazipur district of eastern Uttar Pradesh province of India. It should be noted that Gazipur district in easternmost part of U.P. bordering Bihar state and Ballia district on the eastern side, Varanasi on Western and Southern side Azamgarh and Mau districts in northern side. It is an extremely backward district where no industry or prosperous business exists. Only small shops and trading are found in the countryside and city. Agriculture is the main occupation of people, while some people have joined armed forces and police. The literacy rate is just 60.06% (73.45% among males and 44.39% among female), while the same among Dalits is very low (35.95% among males and just 14.25% among females). The literacy rate among rural Dalit women is extremely low i.e. less than 10 percent. Gazipur district has been known for its criminality, casteism, feudalism, oppression of Dalits and orthodoxy. The reason for selecting these villages for the study is that these villages have sizable population of Dalits, and are situated far away from the city centre, and thus, are less affected by the city culture and values. Most of the Dalits’ families in these villages are landless and are engages as laborers’ in agricultural fields, construction sites, and in the small shops. Some of them are ricksaw/trolly/handcart pullers. A few lucky ones have migrated to neighboring cities and engage themselves in some kind of manual work or vending. Some of them are also engaged in animal farming, piggery, poultry, fishing, small handicraft, etc. The general condition of Dalit families in these villages is very poor or rather appalling. They are on the extreme margin of the rural community who are not benefited by any developmental programmes of the government, and are most neglected, exploited and oppressed.

Method of the Study For the purpose of objectivity, a systematic list of all Dalit families living in these four village was prepared which constituted about 1547 families. From this list 300 households were selected through the random sampling method using Tippett’s Random Number Table which was considered more suitable and appropriate in this case as the whole Dalit population under the study has homogenous socioeconomic characteristics though they are divided into several castes and sub-castes. From these selected households one Dalit women from each family between the age of 25-55 was picked-up who had agreed to become respondents for the study. An interview-schedule was earlier prepared and applied to obtain information from them. Besides, in a few cases in depth case- study and observational methods were also used for collecting data on real life-situation of the respondents. It should be noted that detailed analysis of the data is still going on. Here, we are giving some broad observations based on our study.

Main Findings of the Study

  1. It was observed that most Dalit women covered under the present study are living under abject poverty and sub-human conditions. In most of the cases, they do not have proper houses to live in. The facilities of pure drinking water, sewage and toilet, etc. were just not available to them. Most of them have to live in small hutments without proper sanitation, and hygiene. In fact, many of them live under trees or open sky.

  1. More than 90 percent of Dalit women covered under the study are either illiterate or very scantly literate. They are not even able to recognize Hindi letters and words, and put their signatures in their own handwriting. They could hardly count numbers beyond nine or ten. Ironically, they do not seem to be much interested in receiving education through adult or non-formal channels. Neither they are interested in educating their children, particularly daughters as they think that it was of no use to them and in no way related to their real life- situation, or fetch some meaningful work or employment for them.

  1. The health and nutritional status of the respondents are very poor. Most of these women suffer from various kinds of diseases like leucorrhea, respiratory diseases, tuberculosis, joint pains, general weakness, diarrhea, etc. Even some of them are found to be suffering from some kind of mental disorders. Frequent pregnancies and abortions have further made them very weak. They are least aware of the methods of keeping good health and hygiene. Their daily diet is mainly the leftover of the family meals-inadequate in quantity and inferior in nutritional quality. Thus, their health is perpetually poor resulting in premature death in many cases.

  1. Most of the Dalit women covered under the study are found neck-deep dipped into various kinds of beliefs in things like sorcery, spirit worship, magic, unhealthy customs and traditions, religious rituals and practices which often takes away their hard-earned money and resources, and further make them vulnerable to exploitation and false promises.

  1. Dalit women’s husbands covered under the study are also ignorant lots. They are mostly suffering from false sense of superiority for being men and thus suffering from all kinds male chauvinism. Usually, they command the authority structure in the family putting Dalit women at the secondary or tertiary positions. They are often under the habits of liquor-consumption and gambling, and take away the wages earned by Dalit women and thus, leaving the whole family to starve. They also often beat their wives on the slightest pretext and protest. Thus, Dalit women’s husbands are found to be their worst enemies.

  1. Dalit women covered under the study are often employed in agricultural farms owned by higher caste feudal landlords during tilling, sowing, irrigating, cutting and harvesting seasons, and are on their mercy for their bread and butter. They are always paid far less wages than prescribed by the rules and have to work for longer hours. During the course of their work in the fields they are often sexually exploited by their feudal landlords. They are hardly able to resist routine kind of the maltreatment and misbehavior meted out to them. Not only that, many of them are keptas bonded laborers’ by their landlords and are not paid their legitimate wages at all. In such cases, they are given only some food and cloths. They do not even know how to seek legal help and redressal to overcome their bonded status.

  1. After the day-long hard work at the field when they return to their homes in the evening, another kinds of hard work i.e. household work like cooking, cleaning of utensils, cloth–washing, cleaning of homes, taking care of cattle’s, etc. await them. In most of the cases, their husbands do not help them in their household chores; instead often they take-away their hard-earned wages for wasteful expenditures. Their young children remain unattended, half-fed and crying. Their husbands often show cruelty towards them and beat them mercilessly. Rape, violence and atrocities are in their destiny. They have very limited space in community and society at large.

  1. There are several schemes of upliftment of Dalit women by the State and the Central Governments. But, the benefits of such schemes and programmes rarely reach to them. Indian bureaucracy is hopelessly insensitive, inefficient and corrupt. It hardly cares for them and their plights. Whatever funds come for their improvement, are cornered by unscrupulous local politicians, government functionaries and petty bureaucrats. Thus, the funds which are earmarked by the government for their welfare are hardly able to bring any noticeable change in their life. They remain hapless, ignorant, exploited and oppressed.

They are the victims of worst kind of patriarchy, feudalism, casteism, corruption and insencivity of the Indian society. Their plights are endless - life is difficult and full of miseries. In sum, rural Dalit women of India have been living in the culture of silence throughout the centuries. They have remained mute expectators to their exploitation, oppression and barbarity against them. They do not have any control over their own bodies, earnings, and lives. The extreme expression of violence, exploitation and oppression against them is visible in forms of hunger, malnutrition, disease, physical and mental torture, rape; illiteracy, ill-health, unemployment, insecurity and inhuman treatment. The collective forces of feudalism, casteism, and patriarchy have made their lives just a hell. An over whelming majority of them live under the most precarious conditions. In the present age of modernism and post-modernism they are still living in darker age of savagery.

Therefore, I most humbly, appeal to this august gathering to come-out to help them come-out of this miserable condition. Thus, it is being felt that sincere and honest efforts for the improvement in rural Dalit women’s status is urgently required with food-security, safety, housing, medical facilities, availability of pure drinking water, educational facility for their children, proper orientation and training for confidence building into them so that they may be able to gather some courage and self-confidence and protect their body, money and dignity. The delivery system of the governmental programmes also need to best reamlined and strict monitoring system should be evolve to ensure that funds and materials meant for them really reach them, and are not diverted elsewhere by corrupt officials and unscrupulous tauts, agents and middlemen. Here, the role of NGOs and other concerned individuals including women activists and grass root social-workers cannot be underestimated.


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