The Dalit people or ‘untouchables’ are India’s lowest caste. They are shunned by society and suffer from exclusion, discrimination and exploitation.
Children on the Edge are currently working here to bring together three small, active and engaged local partners in India's poorest state (Bihar), to provide quality education for Dalit children and enable them to access mainstream, government middle schools.
John Littleton, our Asia Regional Manager recently visited the programmes and spent some time in the Vaishali district of Bihar, where our partners Parivartan Kendra have opened Centres in ten rural Dalit communities offering education to 280 children.
Of the twenty-one strata of Dalit castes, the Musahar are the lowest. While all ten of the participating communities in Vaishali district are from the Dalit or ‘untouchable’ classes of society, four of the communities are Musahar villages.
John describes how “the term literally translates as ‘rat eaters’, a practice which both ostracises the Musahar from other Dalit castes and reflects their desperate struggle for daily survival. Musahars almost universally have no access to land ownership, schooling, or meaningful work.”
We talked with some of the women from one of the Musahar Community Action Groups about their situation. What emerged was the level of abuse and the lack of power they struggle with in their daily lives. Aside from raising unclean animals such as pigs and brewing home-made alcohol, most Musahars in Vaishali are trapped in bonded labour.
One lady, Kumari said “Because we have no land we have no power, the drinking water is often dirty which makes our children sick. I work for the landowner for for 60INR (75p) a day but sometimes he gives us nothing. I have to work for him or my family will have no place to live.”
The majority of residents in this village are engaged in some form of bonded labor – a practice which allows landlords from higher castes to exploit Musahar families whom they allow to squat on their lands in exchange for free or cheap labour. While formally outlawed in India, this is a practice which dates backs many centuries in Bihar.
John also spoke with a lady called Shela at a Musahar village meeting, she works in the fields for about 50 pence per day, she is not allowed to stop for food during the day. “I live on the government land by the canal. The officials often tell us that they will force us to move. When it rains the canal floods and water runs through our home”.
The aim of the work here is to not just introduce basic education to children in these communities, but also to inform the community about their rights and give them the tools they need to practice self-determination and create better lives.
In their monthly meetings, Shela and Kumari, together with the rest of the Community Action Group report potential threats, raise awareness of human rights and communicate information about the services available. They are currently planning a series of Child Rights Focus Days and working on the issues highlighted of untouchability and child marriage.
The group also discuss child safety issues and create guidelines for preventing exploitation, abuse and abduction. They work with children and community members to identify and respond to dangerous situations, leading to a safer community.
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