Today is World Day of Social Justice. In 2007, The UN General Assembly proclaimed 20 February as a day to promote social justice activities. The UN define social justice as an ‘underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations’.
They describe how ‘We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability.’
Today Children on the Edge are promoting the work we support in Bihar State, India, helping Dalit communities to remove the barriers they face due to caste discrimination and fight for social justice. 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 status according to Hindu beliefs. Traditionally there are four castes (divided into thousands of sub-categories) and a fifth category of people who fall outside of the 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 connected with their traditional ‘outcaste’ occupations. The resulting persecution, discrimination and poverty leaves Dalit children extremely vulnerable.
Working with two partner organisations, Children on the Edge are supporting education for Dalit children and their communities in Bihar State, not just for education’s sake, but to begin to break the cycle of discrimination.
Varsha Bela heads up the work of Parivartan Kendra (PK) in the rural Dalit communities of Vaishali District, Bihar. She describes the vision she has for her work as: “Bringing change in the lives of Dalit children through the transformation of communities on the edge”. In the urban area of Patna, Sister Veena and her organisation Narjeevan Educational and Social Welfare Society (NESWS) shares this vision and between them they facilitate 25 Community and Education Centres in the urban slums and rural villages.
The discrimination they are fighting in Bihar is very real. Veena describes the experiences of the Dalit community she works with; ‘In the village their houses are kept away from other houses, and in the city they are ghettoised. There are no toilets in their houses, or even a community toilet so they are forced to go in the open, on land they do not own, so they are chased away. There is a lack of clean drinking water facilities for the Dalits, in one slum 150 families use two hand pumps. The man next to this slum does not allow their water to flow through his land to the river, so the dirty water remains in the slum and creates sickness and filth. If I go with Dalit staff or friends to someone’s house they are nervous as they know they will not be welcomed in. They will not be be offered food or able to use the glasses or plates of other castes, if they touch these things, the owner will throw them away”.
The model our partners are working with to bring change has three components. First they set up Community Resource Centres, where Dalit people can join together and ‘feel the strength of their unity’. Through the establishment of women’s groups attached to each centre, people are trained about their entitlements and about the use of non-violent dialogue and actions to achieve their rights. They are also supported in a practical sense (i.e obtaining ID papers which qualify them for their entitlements, but are often missing and hard to access because of illiteracy, migration and landlessness).
As government primary schools are currently discriminating against Dalit children, the second component is to use the Community Resource Centres to facilitate education for children. Each afternoon, alongside basic maths, science and languages, 25 classes learn about many issues relating to caste discrimination, local governance, gender equality, human rights and self expression.
Varsha describes how “We teach children from the Dalit community that you have equal rights to any citizen in this country. We focus on the Indian Constitution which gives us fundamental rights and does not allow anyone to be treated according to their caste, class, religion, place of birth or sex. The implementation of the law is very poor though, and knowledge and use of it is very low due to lack of education. This is what we can change”.
Lastly comes action. In response to their training the community focus on realising their rights to a life with dignity, and all that entails. So far the women’s groups in the area, through peaceful protest and dialogue, have successfully fought for land rights, food entitlement, access to school and even the return of trafficked children.
Between them these two organisations are educating 800 Dalit children, who are beginning to realise their worth and be equipped to fight for the equal opportunities they deserve in the future. “This is a sustainable model of change” says Varsha, “it ensures Dalit children will get their rights in the future. If they grow up thinking they are nothing, then they will expect nothing in life. Education is the start of this change.”
Find out more about Social Justice Day
Read about our work with Dalit children in Bihar State
Urge the Indian government to end discrimination against Dalits.