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 bringing together two small, active and engaged partners in Bihar State; Narjeevan Educational and Social Welfare Society (NESWS) and Parivartan Kendra (PK), both based in and around Patna.
Through these partners we are supporting 30 community and education centres, with a particular focus on targeting Musahar communities where possible.
The centres are child friendly environments that tackle barriers to education by providing opportunities to learn for 1,200 children, enabling them 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. By realising these rights, they can begin to break out of the vicious cycle of discrimination that traps them. The curriculum includes a focus on caste discrimination, local governance and justice systems 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.
After attending the Centres, Sahil entered mainstream school and then campaigned to have two water pumps installed in his local area.
He says “Since going to the Centre, people value me and I have respect. I want to be a doctor and change people’s lives, but I am starting with changing the village!”.
News and Features
Read all our stories from the work in India >>
The Economist - 'Low-caste Indians are better off than ever—but that’s not saying much'
Project leader, Sr Veena featured on BOND's '15 Women making a difference in their communities'
BBC - 'India's Dalit's still fighting untouchability'
The Economist - 'Why caste still matters in India'
Human Rights Law Network - Dalit Rights
Full collection of project news stories in India
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