Dalit, which means “oppressed” in Sanskrit, is a name used by communities belonging to the lowest castes in India. These communities are the poorest in the country because of lack of ownership and access to resources and the pervasive and entrenched discrimination against them.
Dalits are treated as “untouchables,” meaning they are confined to menial and despised jobs. Some practices of “untouchability” include: forbidding Dalits from wearing sandals or carrying an umbrella in front of dominant caste members; the ‘two-tumbler system’ wherein Dalits are not allowed to use the same kind of cups or tumblers as dominant castes; segregation; separate burial grounds; and pouring drinking water into their hands instead of providing them a glass, among others. While open discrimination and untouchability may have been reduced over the last century owing to the outlawing of such actions, Dalits remain an oppressed community especially because of landlessness and lack of access to resources.
Dalit women experience oppression threefold because they suffer not only in terms of caste and class, but also in terms of gender. They have a long history of starvation and gender violence inflicted by upper castes.
Dalit women therefore have more than enough reason to struggle for a better life for their families and communities. And struggle they have.
Here are some of the stories of how Dalit women are fighting to liberate themselves from oppression and discrimination.
Konalam Village, Vellore District, Tamil Nadu
Chandramma is a leader of the Rural Women’s Liberation Movement in their district. She is determined to fight against the oppression of the Dalit and is not afraid to question “untouchability” practices that still remain widespread in India.
Chandramma’s community was prevented access to a burial ground because dominant caste people occupied the road leading to it. Chandramma led her community in the fight for access to the said grounds. In one funeral march, she led a demonstration in front of the Taluk (local administration) office and spoke vehemently against caste atrocities.
Because of their persistent struggle against discrimination, Chandramma and the other Dalit women in their village faced many threats. These threats escalated to a point where their houses were burned down. They had to leave their village but continued with their movement.
After receiving a lot of media attention, the issue of the rights to the burial grounds of Chandramma’s community was eventually addressed by the government. As a result of the Dalit women’s struggle, the government took control of the contested road and Dalits were finally allowed access to it.
Furthermore, the government also built a center for making iron equipment as an employment-generating activity for the community. Indeed, their struggle bore fruits.
Owing the victory to the collective action of their mass movement, Chandramma declares: “I will be part of the movement as long as I live.”
Agannagar, Vellore District, Tamil Nadu
As a child, Magimai faced caste discrimination in school: water was poured to her hands to drink as she was not allowed to use a cup; and she was beaten by a boy from a different caste. She felt deeply hurt and wanted to change the situation for Dalits.
As a young girl, Magimai joined the Rural Women’s Liberation Movement and mobilized women on issues of land, basic services, and Dalit and women’s rights.
In 1997, a series of incidents of caste violence in the southern districts of the state erupted when the government announced the creation of a new transport corporation in Virudhunagar district in the name of a Pallar community member (the Veeran Sundaralingam Transport Corporation, VSTC). Upper caste Thevars opposed the proposal and on May 1, 1997, when VSTC was inaugurated, Thevars threw stones at the buses and refused to ride them- for them it was unthinkable to ride a bus named after a Dalit. In the successive months, different attacks against Dalits were perpetrated by upper caste and state police. These incidents prodded Magimai, along with the movement, to conduct a fact -finding mission. The issue was taken up by the government with the perpetrators being punished and rehabilitative measurers provided to the victims. Magimai and her colleagues realized that caste violence is particularly harsh to women, making them doubly marginalized. Thus the Tamil Nadu Dalit Women’s Movement was established.
Magimai worked on spreading the movement to 24 districts of the state. She provided trainings for women regarding violence against women, Dalit Human Rights, legal literacy and leadership. This helped women in the district chapters to start addressing issues of Dalit women.
Magimai was also instrumental in carrying out state level campaigns for various issues. She has represented Dalit women in the 40th Committee on World Food Security (CFS) Meeting in Rome in 2012.
Magimai proudly shares how the intervention of the movement in various caste violence issues helped in bringing justice to the victims. However, she is saddened by the fact that caste structure remains intact and Dalits face caste violence even today.
Migamai declares, “I am happy about my accomplishments and I will continue my path till caste atrocities are stopped.”
Mudhur, Vellore District, Tamil Nadu
Sowri, a mother to three children, is a daily labourer like her husband. She is the President of the Dalit People’s Movement, which works to stop violence against and discrimination of Dalits, and for their land rights, education and political rights.
Sowri’s life changed when in 1995, she decided to take on a case of caste violence. The incident involved dominant caste men attacking a group of Dalit youth who accidentally touched them while travelling by public transport. Four of the Dalit youth were critically wounded. Sowri took up this issue with the Dalit People’s Movement, informed the district administration and filed a court case. Since then, Sowri has been very active in the movement.
With the movement, she stopped menial labour assigned to Dalits, e.g. carrying dead body and manual scavenging. She started a self-help group with 30 women to initiate economic empowerment activities. Sowri also triumphed in fighting for “bhoodan land”— lands that were allotted to Dalits but occupied by dominant caste people. She also became a representative of local government.
Sowri enjoys the respect of the community. Though she faces opposition from the dominant caste (?) community, she is sure to lead the movement to achieve dignity for Dalits. Sowri shares, “If you want social justice you have to give sustained effort and dedication.”
Kaverirajapuram, Thiruvallur district, Tamil Nadu
Salamma joined the Rural Women’s Movement after she experienced sexual harassment at the hands of the police. The movement offered her moral and legal support.
From then on, Salamma has been active in fighting against discrimination and oppression. As an agricultural labourer, Salamma herself was a victim of “untouchability” practices. She experienced not being allowed to take drinking water from the common well, and food (ragi balls) was thrown and not handed to her.
Salamma was part of the cultural team of the movement and sang awareness songs and performed plays that talk about caste and gender violence. She also constantly addressed the right to wear footwear, criticized untouchability, and the “two-tumbler system.”
Now, Salamma is bold enough to go to the government office and apply for aid for the needy. She has good rapport with people in the government. She experienced travelling to many places and meeting different people from other states. She attends meeting for women’s liberation and actions against untouchability.
Salamma ran for a position in the local government elections and won. She then worked for basic services for her community. She also learnt tailoring skills, which is her source of livelihood now. Salamma says, “To gain political power is to achieve empowerment.”
Puliampatti, Salem District, Tamil Nadu
Since childhood, Shanthi witnessed caste and gender violence. This led her to establish the Tamil Nadu Dalit Women Federation in 1987. She fought caste violence, the ‘two tumbler system’ in tea shops, and facilitated inter-caste marriages.
Shanthi also intervened on the issue of 40 quarry working families treated as bonded labourers. These labourers were not allowed to go out of the work sites and their children were not allowed to go to school. Shanthi was able to secure assistance from the police in rescuing the families and confronted the local administration for their inaction. She succeeded in getting compensation for the victims, as well as land titles, public distribution cards and voter identification cards.
Shanthi also constantly addressed sexual violence and worked hard to make sure the culprits are punished and the victims are rehabilitated. Once, a mentally disturbed 16 year-old girl was raped by a 75 year-old man. The movement led by Shanthi saw to it that the culprit got punishment and that the victim received shelter and treatment.
Shanthi became the district leader for Tamil Nadu Dalit Women’s Movement, through which she worked for political participation of women and accountability of governance to people. Now, she has gained respect even from the police officials.
“I travel all over India to campaign and forge solidarity on Dalit and gender issues,” Shanthi says.
Periapalaiyur Karur District, Tamil Nadu
Backiam studied up to 10th standard, from Periapalaiyur Karur District Tamil Nadu, and is a Dalit woman. She has three daughters, all in school and is married to a daily wage worker.
A strong Dalit woman activist, she started an organization called “Ambedkar Dalit Women’s Movement” to fight against caste atrocities and gender-based violence.
She started to mobilise women and formed Self-Help Groups (SHGs) under the leadership of Dalit women. However, other dominant caste people opposed the idea of running a SHG under the leadership of Dalit women; thus she was insulted for challenging the issue of untouchability practices and caste discrimination.
Backiam was not scared. She filed a complaint under the Prevention of Atrocities against SC/ST Act (scheduled caste / scheduled tribe). In a case where Dalit youth were attacked, she took up the issue with the police and filed cases. The victims received compensation from the perpetrators and the other caste. She also constantly addressed issues of sexual violence against women by protesting, exposing and reporting these cases, following up the issues and helping in the rehabilitation of the victims.
Her family and relatives at first resisted her involvement in public activities. It took a while for them to be convinced of the value of her work. She engaged with the Tamil Nadu Women’s Forum (TNWF) and started addressing the issues of pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), land grabbing, and multinational companies (MNCs) responsible for pesticides use such as Monsanto. She also started advocating for legislation on violence against women.
Backiam has attended trainings on the Convention on Elimination of all kinds of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and promotion of food sovereignty and land rights for women. She shared this information to Dalit women in her district through various training programs.
“I face a lot of difficulties whenever I solve a problem, but when the result is fruitful, I am immensely happy,” Backjam declares.
Chandramma, Magimai, Sowri, Salamma, Shanthi and Backiam are just some of the Dalit women fighting and struggling for genuine freedom and social justice. Their stories inspire and give hope to all other Dalit communities.
PAN Asia Pacific’s (PANAP) Women Rise Up campaign celebrates the struggles of Dalit and all Rural Women for human rights, social justice, land and resources.