India's Outcasts: Dalits

Did you know that India has more slaves than all other countries have together?

dalits1

Did you know that more than 200 million people in India are traditionally regarded as untouchable and live in the shadow of the wealthy and high-technological society as India is today?  Did you know that every day, 1.3 million people in India are forced to clean human excrement with their bare hands?

Dalit means beaten into pieces or smashed, and refers to those who fall outside any of the four castes of the Hindu caste system, and the Dalits are history’s longest standing oppressed people.

This group of people designated as Dalits are denied the right to education and healthcare. In many areas in India, Dalits are denied to enter the police station, denied access to the national security system that is supposed to stand up, represent and help people in need. The socially and economically vulnerable situation Dalits are living in, put them in high risk of discrimination, dehumanization, degradation and violence every day. Also, Dalits are also at great risk of being exploited and trafficked.

Women and children are exploited to work under slavelike conditions. The Dalits are basically only seen as suitable for jobs such as drain cleaner, pall-bearer and prostitutes at the temples.

Dalits are discriminated against just because they were born into poorer conditions. Let me give you an example. After a Dalit has entered a tea shop and finished his or her tea, the Dalit is expected to crush the cup on the ground to prevent another person from being polluted by the cup the Dalit touched.

In 2006 Prime Minister Singh was the first leader in India to compare the condition of the Dalits with the black South Africans under apartheid and stated that the only parallel to the practice of untouchability was Apartheid. The fact that it has been compared to Apartheid in South Africa shows the dreadful reality facing people in India today.

These people are living a reality that is far beyond what many of us can imagine. We need to show our solidarity and help.

I do believe that by doing what we can, with what we have and where we are, we can together make a change.

Dalit Freedom Network is an organization which works worldwide to raise awareness of Dalits’ situation in India. They work for education, economic development, healthcare and social justice for Dalits in India.

For further information check out their website to find out more about Dalit Freedom’s great job to prevent and combat the horrible situations the Dalits experience today. You can also find out what you can do to support and be a part of making a difference for Dalits in India.

Featured image for this post is from Supporting Dalit Children.

Anti-Rape Underwear in India, condoms with teeth in South Africa – protecting women and girls, but at what cost?

In the past couple of weeks, my social media feeds have been flooded with news about new “anti-rape underwear” that was developed by a group of engineering students in India to protect women from rape. Apparently, this underwear is capable of sending out 82 electric shocks when pressure sensors are activated by a rape attempt, and is also equipped with GPS and can send out an SMS to the local emergency number, as well as the victim’s family.

Female Condom with teeth - image courtesy Rape Axe, http://www.antirape.co.za/
Female Condom with teeth – image courtesy Rape Axe, http://www.antirape.co.za/

This approach to prevent rape reminds me of the “female condom with teeth”, developed a couple of years ago by a doctor in South Africa. This device is essentially a condom that a woman inserts inside herself. Within the condom are jagged, sharp “teeth”, which will attach on a man’s penis during penetration in a very painful manner. Once the teeth have been lodged into the flesh, only a doctor can remove it – so not only does the man now have a condom with teeth stuck to his penis, but he can now also clearly be identified as an attempted rapist, given that women who were willing participants in a sexual act would probably have removed the device before engaging in consensual sex.

There is heated debate over these types of approaches towards curbing sexual violence, and for a good reason: Essentially, expecting women to wear electric shock underwear or insert devices with teeth inside their bodies puts the responsibility of not being raped on women and girls. In the end, there is only one way to stop rape: for men to stop raping women and girls, and for societies to stop coming up with excuses and justifications for sexual violence. Condoms with teeth or electric shock underwear are not a permanent solution – so by coming up with such approaches to “protect women”, are we just perpetuating the victim-blaming culture and the idea that rape is always somehow a woman’s fault, and that she could have and should have taken measures to stop it or prevent it?

I think the answer is everything but simple and straight forward.

Yes, these approaches do place the responsibility of preventing rape on women and girls. They do send out a message that preventing rape is up to women, and that there are measures women can and should take to minimize the risk of becoming a victim of sexual assault. Personally, I think that instead of constantly coming up with new ways to tell women and girls how to not get raped, we should switch our focus on telling men to just not rape, and holding them accountable if they do – period. In the end, that is the only way to prevent rape in a sustainable way, and that is the only way that truly respects women and girls.

On the other hand – in South Africa, where the condom with teeth was created, rape and sexual assault are rampant. According to recent statistics, over 60,000 rapes are reported to the police in SA every year, which is more than in India despite the huge difference in population. Given that only a fraction of rapes actually get reported, the real figure of rape and sexual assault cases in SA could be even ten-fold. In India, stories of rape and sexual assault are in the news every day – young girls, children, women, grandmothers. Being born a female in India is almost like having a target on your back. Victim-blaming is common place, and while the recent terrible case of the Delhi bus rape brought the prevalence of sexual crimes in India to the consciousness of the entire world, whether the recent changes to laws and policies to protect women will actually result in women and girls being safer remains to be seen. Without a major societal shift in attitudes, values, and thinking around rape and women’s and girls’ role in sexual assault, it is unlikely that neither SA or India will be able to curb the rampant violence against women and girls that both countries are currently struggling with.

So, given these realities of females in India, South Africa, and in countless other countries around the world – are devices like the condom with teeth and electric shock underwear still better than nothing? Despite the fact that they do promote an entirely backwards way of looking at rape prevention, is it still worth it if some women and girls are protected from rape and sexual attack by these devices?

These are not black-and-white issues. On a personal level, I strongly believe that it is not women’s and girls’ responsibility to not get raped. It should not be on our shoulders to take precautions to minimize our chances of being raped or assaulted, it is not women’s and girls’ fault if that does happen, and no amount of covering clothing, curfews, pepper spray, electric shock lingerie or condoms with teeth will prevent rape from happening as long as there are people who continue to choose to rape. Women and girls get raped despite their age, their race, what they are wearing, sober and drunk, in day light and at night time, by friends, relatives and strangers. We could be wearing a bra that has a machine gun built into it, and that wouldn’t stop rape and sexual assault as long as violence against women continues to be as broadly accepted and prevalent as it is in South Africa, India, and many other countries around the world.

However, I don’t know that it is like to live in constant fear of violence and assault. If I did, maybe I would choose to arm my body with every device that there is to make sure that I never become a victim, or that I never become a victim again if something has already happened to me. I wish no woman and girl ever had to do that, and I hope some day we will see a world where the responsibility of not being raped is not placed on women and girls any more. I wish to see a world where rape prevention becomes obsolete, because rape becomes obsolete. Unfortunately, we are still a long way from such world – so until then, are these kinds of measures justified? I really don’t know.

What do you think?

Quotas: now!

I have spent the last 10 weeks in India researching women’s political participation in Goa. The female politicians are very few in the state (only 2 % of the members of the legislative assembly are women). Over and over again I’ve asked female politicians I’ve met: what can be done to solve this problem? What could make you feel encouraged running for an election to the state legislature? To get into the sphere where you rightfully should have an equal share with your male counterparts. Almost everyone has mentioned the same thing: Quotas. We need quotas.

Quotas are not cheating. Quotas are a step to make this world fairer. Here are three reasons why:

 1. THERE’S ALREADY RESERVATION FOR MEN

Common to all 192 countries in the world today is the fact that people on the highest positions in society are men. That is not because they are more competent. That is because we today have a structure in society; let’s call it an invisible reservation bill, which favors men. Some people like to call it “natural”, but believe me, there is nothing in the set of genes in the male body that make them better suited for ruling positions. By implementing a reservation for women this unnatural pattern of power could be broken.

 2. MORE COMPETENCE & A BROADENED AGENDA

Quotas are not used to exclude competent men; they are for used to bring out the competent women. Many female politicians I talked to in India expressed a conviction that their experience would change today’s prioritizes in politics.

In Karnataka, a neighboring state to Goa, the collections of local taxes have risen more than seven times in the Belandur gram panchayat since they implemented the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment which ensures a 30 % reservation for women on the local level (the panchayati raj). Village surveys carried out in the state of West Bengal and Rajasthan also show that women prioritize projects that meet community needs, such as water and roads, to a larger extent in comparison to men.

3. MORE JUSTICE & DEMOCRACY

Political decisions affect everyone in a society but not in the same way. One of the main objectives for a reservation is that it would increase women’s visibility in all decisions.  This would also lead to a strengthening of the democratic setup. India is often referred to as the biggest democracy in the world but with only 11 % women in the Indian parliament it is obvious that it has some flaws. Democracy does not guarantee everyone to be represented but fundamental to democracy are the principles of equal access to power and that all members should enjoy universally recognized freedoms and liberties.

It takes time to change structures, but quotas are a push in the right direction.

Play Get Water! for World Water Day!

Image Courtesy of Decode Global
Image Courtesy of Decode Global

Have you ever wondered about the difficulties women and girls face while gathering clean water? By playing Decode Global’s new game Get Water!, you won’t have to wonder anymore.  With a mission to raise awareness about the global water crisis, Decode Global recently launched an interactive mobile game app for iPad and iPhone that successfully advocates for change.

Nominated as a finalist in the 2012 United Nations Alliance of Civilizations mobile game competition, Get Water! encourages dialogue regarding the global water crisis, especially towards its effect on girls’ access to education.

The object of the game is to help Maya, a young Indian girl, retrieve clean water so that she can return to school.

In order to fully understand my love for this game, you must know that I very rarely play video games. In fact, the only games on my iPad prior to downloading Get Water! were Ruzzle, Temple Run, Solitaire, and Mancala – of which I only played on long car or plane rides. However, I must admit that I love Decode Global’s Get Water!

In order to reach Maya’s clean water source, you must navigate her through various village obstacles, scoring points along the way. Collecting dirty water droplets reduces the player’s score, while colliding with peacocks and/or turtles breaks Maya’s water jug, forcing her to return home and start over.

As an incentive to continue playing, Maya has the opportunity to collect multiple perks to help her complete her journey. For example, by scoring enough points to earn the ‘Scary Mask,’ Maya scares away the first three peacocks she encounters, resulting in a safer and easier journey. However, Maya must trade in 60 school pencils to use the Scary Mask, creating a challenging dynamic for the player as he/she must decide how to most effectively spend resources. In order to score points to gain perks like the Scary Mask, the game includes several extra assignments for Maya to complete. Two examples of assignments are to “run 200 meters on the ground” and to “dodge five turtles in one run.”

One fantastic aspect of the game is that each time you return to the start, a quote appears from children around the world stating the importance of accessing clean water. By posting numerous statements that advocate for access to clean water, the game educates players on not only the global water crisis, but also the connection between the global water crisis and education.

Additionally, the game employs a series of chapters (i.e. levels) that the player must complete in order to help Maya collect clean water and return to school.  The chapters often outline real-life situations faced by women and girls around the world. In its final chapter, the Epilogue, Maya finally reaches the clean water source and returns to school.

As someone who never plays video games, I quickly found myself addicted to Get Water! Before playing, I expected to play only a few minutes to gain a general sense of the game. However, each time I broke Maya’s water jug, I found myself saying, “I’m only trying one more time, only one more time.” An hour later, I had played too many times to count.

Do yourself a favor. In honor of World Water Day, download and install this mobile game app. You will not be disappointed in both its entertainment and educational value. Happy World Water Day!

Download Get Water!

CSW57: Eliminating and Preventing Gender-Based Violence

Image Courtesy of UN Women.
Image Courtesy of UN Women.

This week marks the start of the 57th annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Beginning March 4th and continuing until March 15th, international policymakers will convene in New York City to address this year’s theme: “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.”

Established in 1946 by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the mission of CSW is to prepare recommendations and reports that promote women’s rights across political, economic, civil, social and educational realms. International recommendations for eliminating and preventing violence against women and girls could not have come any sooner. In recent months, acts of tremendous violence against women have occurred around the world.

INDIA: In the past few months, multiple cases of vicious sexual assault have sparked women’s rights protests throughout the nation. In December, a New Delhi woman was gang-raped on a bus and died two weeks later from injuries sustained by her abusers. Escalating India’s anti-rape protests, January brought the case of a 29-year-old woman destined for Gurdaspur who was driven to an unfamiliar village where she suffered from repeated gang-rape. The 29-year-old woman also died as a result of the attack.

SOUTH AFRICA: The controversial case involving Olympian Oscar Pistorius and his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, caught the world’s attention.  Not only did Pistorius allegedly shoot and kill Steenkamp, but the incident also occurred on Valentine’s Day, the same day women around the world participated in One Billion Rising to advocate against gender based violence.

PAKISTAN: Malala Yousafzai only wanted to attend school and gain an education. As a result of her strong belief that every girl has a right to an education, young Malala suffered an assassination attempt by The Taliban. Surviving and obtaining more international support than ever, Malala created The Malala Fund to improve opportunities for girls’ education around the world.

Not only a problem in developing countries, 83 percent of girls aged 12 to 16 experience sexual harassment in UNITED STATES’ public schools. Additionally, 40 to 70 percent of female murder victims in AUSTRALIA and CANADA are killed as a result of domestic violence. In 2011, one Gallup poll measured the gender safety gap by asking women and men from 143 countries if they felt safe walking alone at night. Results from the survey indicated high-income countries accounted for six of the top ten nations with highest gender safety gaps.* 

Globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime.

Although only a glimpse of the international phenomenon of violence against women, the three aforementioned cases and horrific statistics demonstrate a stark need to advocate for women’s rights around the world.

We can only hope this year’s CSW establishes practical solutions for reducing such gender-based violence.

*NEW ZEALAND, ITALY, FRANCE, AUSTRALIA, THE UNITED STATES and FINLAND ranked among the top ten countries with highest gender safety gaps.

Sanitation To Education – Inspiring Story of A Girl

Our campaign, which is to spread an promote awareness regarding sanitation, water and its effect on girls’ education has taken us to a school in a nearby urban slum area that is located in Gurgaon, India (New Delhi, National Capital Region).

Conditions which girls have to face everyday at schools while sharing the same toilet with boys,results in dropping out of the girls in huge numbers  which are close to 41 % in India
Conditions which girls have to face everyday at schools while sharing the same toilet with boys. School drop out rates of girls is close to 41 % in India!

As a part of our ongoing awareness programs we are teaching children on how to follow good sanitation & hygiene practices and ways of obtaining safe drinking water. Through the program, one of our team members, Ms. Chinu, came in contact with Sarita, a student in a group of girls to whom she was teaching good practices to be followed on menstrual days. Sarita told Chinu that many girl students here are unfamiliar with the good hygiene practices to be followed during menstrual days, one of the key factors to the drop out rate of girls from schools. These rates are increasing and ultimately bolts their education and career. The girls told our team member startling facts about menstrual practices they are following during menstrual days. In many areas the girls and their mothers use nothing! In some homes the girl and mother both use the same cloth. There are also myths associated to the practice, which makes it even worse. They say “if you wash the fabric and air dry it or if someone sees it you will become infertile” and as a result of this they dry it in the dark and it becomes subjected to germs and sometimes insects, which lead to illnesses, sometimes severe.

Considering it on our priority list, our female staff started giving awareness about sanitation practices to be followed on everyday basis at school, at home during menstrual days, and also the ways to obtain sanitary pads.

During our awareness campaign in schools Chinu came to know that Sarita is not regular in school. She was absent most days. One day Chinu asked Sarita, “why do you remain absent most of the time from school?” Sarita replied with a drenched face that most of the time she is ill due to stomach and intestinal infections, which is why she is not able to attend school, and stays at home. After the conversation with Sarita we came to know that she is living in an area where people don’t follow sanitation & hygiene practices and that she lives in a hazardous environment where diseases like Cholera, Diarrhea and Gastroenteritis are normal. These diseases are mainly due to bad sanitation conditions and unsafe drinking water!

The result of the awareness campaign was that Sarita’s frequent illness faded away, and now she is more confident in her studies and overall development. She is regular in her class and started scoring good marks.

Like Sarita many of the girls who normally skip school on a frequent basis due to lack of awareness regarding sanitation and menstrual hygiene are now regular in their classes.

After this intervention Sarita became a role model for the entire girl community in the area in regard to good sanitation practices and hygiene knowledge.

During this we came to know that there is a lot more need to be done regarding the awareness in other parts of India, like rural and urban slums, where people give more importance to mobile phones than to sanitation, girls’ education & hygiene.

Please also watch the below mentioned inspir­ing video for more information.

The Role of Sanitation in Girl Child Education – A Documentary Film by HEEALS from heeals on Vimeo.

Author:
Gagan Deep
Project Officer
HEEALS
www.heeals.org