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Caste-based discrimination and trafficking


TTRP are excited to present a jointly authored post with Meena Varma, Director of the Dalit Solidarity Network UK, which campaigns against the atrocities, humiliation and poverty that over 260 million Dalits suffer due to caste discrimination and seeks ‘A world without caste discrimination’.

Inequality is at the core of the Caste System. The assignment of basic rights among various castes is unequal and hierarchical as the system is hereditary and maintained through the rigid enforcement of social ostracism (a system of social, physical and economic penalties) in the case of any deviations. Caste-affected communities do not use one single term to describe themselves. The terms used vary from country to country across the world. The International Dalit Solidarity Network uses the term Dalit to refer to caste-affected members also known as ‘untouchables’ and/or Scheduled Castes, and members of other communities affected by similar forms of discrimination such as those inherited from their parents or based on their work.

Caste based discrimination (CBD) affects approximately 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority living in South Asia, and has become an increasingly important issue in human rights work over recent years. It is now generally recognised as the largest systemic human rights violation in the modern world. Caste discrimination involves massive violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Whilst it is often outlawed in the countries affected by it, a lack of legislative implementation and caste-bias within the justice systems largely leaves Dalits without protection.

The lack of political and judicial will to challenge caste discrimination is a global issue. For example, as a recent protest outside the UK Parliament on Monday 4 March showed. The focus of the protest was the UK government’s decision NOT to legislate against caste discrimination – despite provisions enabling it to do so in the Equality Act 2010. The UK government has continued to fail to provide the necessary legal redress and protection for victims of caste discrimination in the UK.

In its long awaited response to the 2010 National Institute for Economic and Social Research report (which looked at Caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain), on 1 March 2013, the government released a statement that it would not enforce legislative measures, but instead introduce an educational programme to address caste discrimination in the UK. The 2010 report concluded:

To reduce caste discrimination and harassment the Government might take educative or legislative approaches. Either would be useful in the public sector. However, non-legislative approaches are less likely to be effective in the private sector and do not assist those where the authorities themselves are discriminating.

The basis for the government’s decision was ‘that it is not the most appropriate or effective way to tackle this complex and sensitive issue’. The initial government response was not a surprising one. Speaking in the Lords on behalf of the government, Baroness Stowell recognised that there is evidence of caste prejudice and discrimination taking place in the United Kingdom. However the government’s view is ‘this education programme, which will explore all the issues, not just those covered by discrimination legislation, is an appropriate and targeted way of dealing with incidents related to caste.’

However, Dalit groups won the day as the protest culminated in a House of Lords amendment to legislate against caste discrimination. Members of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits, Lords Harries and Avebury and Baroness Thornton, joined by Lord Deben from the Conservative Party moved an amendment in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill to bring caste in to the Equality Act as an aspect of race – thus outlawing it in the UK. This example highlights the need for political will, legislative protections and effective lobbying from civil society to coalesce to enable change. However, this also highlights the broader global challenges faced by Dalits for equality.

Entrenched inequality has, as been shown in previous posts on, for example, disability, leaves individuals and communities vulnerable to exploitation. Many Dalits have been victims of enforced ‘slavery’ practices for centuries and there has been a suspicion in recent times that Dalits in South Asia are now also susceptible to human trafficking.

The key issues faced by Dalits where a trafficking element can arise, are:

Bonded Labour. This system involves the ‘captive’ labour of people, who are the subject of debt to a patron and are forced to work to pay off this debt which is very often binding over kinships and generations. The system is rife in industries throughout India and South Asia such as brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture, textiles, textile working, and domestic service. It is very often hard (sometimes injurious) work for very long hours in dreadful conditions. Within this system, children and adults can be sold and transported to other areas requiring their labour.

Sumangali System. Although the payment of a dowry has been prohibited in India since 1961, it is still a general practice and in rural India, families will often incur high debts (itself, an occurrence precipitating a ‘bonded labour’ situation). Young women and girls are lured to garment factories and mills with a promise of ‘lump-sum payment’ after they have completed a three year period of work.  Fairwear described this system in their report as a ‘”marriage assistance system”…. The scheme … – ostensibly –meets the need of poor families and provides stable workforce to factories in Coimbatore’.

The reality of working under the Sumangali Scheme however, stands in sharp contrast to the attractive picture that is presented to the girls and young women during the recruitment process. Excessive overwork, low wages, no access to grievance mechanisms or redress, restricted freedom of movement and limited privacy are some of the constituents of working conditions under this scheme. This was highlighted in the 2011 report from India Committee of the Netherlands, ‘Captured by Cotton’ and its follow up ‘Maid in India’ in 2012. The promised end-of-contract sum is part of the regular wage withheld by the employer at the end of the employment. Often the workers do not even receive the full promised lump sum.

Sexual or Ritual Slavery: Caste or ‘Untouchability’ status does not function as a barrier for the provision of sexual services by this group, forced or otherwise. The link between caste and forced prostitution is apparent in the Devadasi and Jogini systems practiced in India. These systems are a form of religiously sanctioned sexual abuse. Originally a sacred, religious practice, the Devadasi dedication of girls to temples has turned into a systematic abuse of young Dalit girls serving as prostitutes for dominant caste community members. Most girls and women in India’s urban brothels come from Dalit, lower-caste, tribal, or minority communities. In Nepal, the Badi caste is a Dalit ‘sub-caste’. Many Badi women are forced into prostitution and end up being trafficked into Mumbai’s sex industry. The traditional ties of the Badi community to the sex trade may make girls and women in this community particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Badi girls are frequently pressured by their families to start working as a prostitute at an early age to help with the household income. Discrimination, combined with a lack of education means that other job opportunities are rare. However, their ‘customers’ are frequently so-called ‘upper caste’ men – local businessmen, politicians etc – who shun them in public. Dalit Freedom Network assert that almost all women trapped in ritualized prostitution are Dalit. Some 250,000 women in India are involved in prostitution sanctioned by religious ritual; many of them enslaved unknowingly when they were still young children.

Domestic Servitude: Nowhere is slavery more hidden than in domestic service and its victims most often the subject of poverty, deprivation, marginalization and discrimination. For this reason many of the victims in Asia are Dalit.

Within the privacy of the home the potential for exploitation and abuse is at its highest. A substantial proportion of domestic servants are children, 90% of whom are girls, as the demand for domestic labour increases due to the expanding middle classes in India and internationally.

Victims of trafficking for commercial, industrial, domestic, or sexual exploitation experience humility, indignity and the denial of freedom. This is accompanied by the enormous risk of violence and the threat of sanctions if they try to escape or communicate their circumstances. There is increased risk of illness and death due to: malnourishment, vicious discipline, physical violation, sexual molestation, sexually transmitted disease (not just for sex workers) and the incidence of HIV/Aids. When a ‘worker’ becomes ill they are likely to be cast aside by their ‘employer’/patron and left to suffer alone (since they are no longer fit for purpose). These challenges are more acute when the ability of victims to access assistance and support may be compromised by inequality and discrimination. In this respect, the very factors which make Dalits vulnerable may also undermine their recovery. It is clear that there is a need for improved legislative protections for this group, not just in the UK but internationally. However, they need to be matched by more strategic and aggressive cultural change to challenge the prejudices to ensure those protections are implemented and enforced.


1 Comment

  1. […] Migrations while Meena Varma from the Dalit Solidarity Network discussed the relationship between caste discrimination and trafficking.  Bringing a new dimension to the debate, Neill Wilkins, from the Institute for Human Rights and […]

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