Despite the fact that discrimination based on caste was outlawed by India’s constitution in 1950, the practice of ‘untouchability ’ still dictates the order of modern life for millions here.
The caste system assigns individuals a certain hierarchical status according to Hindu beliefs. Traditionally there are four principal castes (divided into thousands of sub-categories) and a fifth category of people who fall outside of the caste system - the Dalits. The word Dalit translates as ‘oppressed’ or ‘broken’ and is generally used to refer to people who were once known as ‘untouchables’ because of the impurity and pollution connected with their traditional ‘outcaste’ occupations.
As members of the lowest rank of Indian society, Dalits face discrimination at almost every level, from access to education and medical facilities to restrictions on where they can live and what jobs they can have.
Bihar is in the top five poorest states of India. It is 12th largest state in terms of geographical size but third largest by population. Within this dense population it is estimated that 55.9% of children in Bihar State are malnourished, which is the third highest level in all the Indian states. Bihar is also one of the biggest child labour employers.
Abuse of the Dalit caste is particularly high in Bihar. Despite having just 8% of the country’s scheduled caste population, this state has one of the highest numbers of crime cases registered against scheduled castes, contributing 16-17% of all Indian crimes against Dalits.
This combination of persecution, discrimination and poverty leaves Dalit children in Bihar extremely vulnerable. Not only this, but there are high numbers of ‘Musahar’ children who represent the lowest strata of the Dalit caste. The term Musahar literally translates as ‘rat eaters’, a practice which ostracises the Musahar from other Dalit castes and reflects their desperate struggle for daily survival.
Currently, schools in Bihar are legally obliged to include children from all castes, but because of the prevailing prejudice, most of these schools are either abandoned, barely functioning or allowing Dalit children to attend, but treating them with cruelty and neglect. Dalit children are frequently discriminated against, being made to sit at the back of the class and restricted from touching or interacting with children from other castes. As a result, those who do make it into school often drop out at an early age.
What we are doing to help
Children on the Edge believes that a major factor in breaking this cycle of discrimination is education. We are currently bringing together two small, active and engaged partners in Patna, Bihar; Narjeevan Educational and Social Welfare Society (NESWS) and Parivartan Kendra (PK).
Through these partners we are supporting 25 community and education centres, with a particular focus on targeting Musahar communities wherever possible. NESWS facilitate education centres for children in Patna’s urban slums and PK are responsible for a group of educational centres in the rural communities of the Vaishali district.
The centres are child friendly environments that provide a education to a high standard, enabling the children to become proficient in maths, science and language. Our partners then work with local schools to encourage integration for the children into the mainstream education system. Here they can obtain education up to grade 10, which will give them better chance of employment in the future.
An important part of this education is helping children understand their rights in the hope that they will realise them and break out of the vicious cycle of discrimination and extreme poverty. Consequently, the curriculum includes a focus on caste discrimination, the local governance and justice system and their rights under both Indian and international human rights law.
The education centres also form a platform from which to bring change in the wider community. An important component of this work is establishing women’s groups. These groups are established through a democratic process. Once formed they are educated about their rights. The two organisations help support them to realise these rights and to bring change within their communities through the creation of dialogue and the use of non-violent action.
The time is right for investing in work that informs Dalit communities about their rights, gives them the tools they need to practice self-determination and develops their ability to create better lives.
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