This week's blog is written by Deborah Doherty, Head of Church & Community at Christian Aid Ireland. Here Deborah talks about ongoing work in india to challenge caste-based discrimination.
The phrase, ‘Land of Contrasts’ is often used to describe one of the most populated countries of the world, India. Colours and sounds assail the senses on the drive from Indira Ghandi International Airport to the centre of New Delhi and you soon realise that to get anywhere around the city you need to keep your hand constantly on the car horn! I confess I closed my eyes in fear on many occasions as overloaded bicycles, mopeds and tuk-tuks came precariously close to making contact with much larger vehicles! Miraculously in the chaos everyone seems to reach their destination in one piece.
When Christian Aid was started 72 years ago, one of the first partners we worked with was The Church of North India and their development department CASA (Churches Auxiliary on Social Action) is still our partner today.
It’s a very different India in 2017 and recent Legislative changes required international organisations such as Christian Aid to register as a local charitable body. The face of Christian Aid in India is now Change Alliance (www.changealliance.in) and in April 2014, Change Alliance took over the management of much of Christian Aid’s existing core programme and partner portfolio.
Our vision and values remain the same, to work with the poor and marginalised for a better and more sustainable future.
Yet despite being one of the world’s largest economies, India still houses the greatest number of people living in absolute poverty. The legacy of the caste system means that many socially excluded groups are prevented from receiving the benefits of economic growth and their rights and entitlements are not fully realised. The socially excluded groups with whom we work and focus our support are women, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, economically backward Muslims and persons living with disabilities.
Traditionally, people from the Scheduled Castes have done the jobs thought unclean, such as cleaning people’s homes or removing sewage. Caste-based discrimination is illegal but it persists, particularly in rural areas. In many places, dominant castes still refuse to eat food cooked by other castes and inter-caste marriage remains taboo.
One of Change Alliance partners is DSS (Dalit Sthree Sakthi), based near Hyderabad, in Andhra Pradesh. The word Dalit means ‘oppressed’ and the Dalit community would have been formerly known as ‘untouchables’. DSS reflects the collective voice of Dalit women, many of whom have suffered discrimination and social exclusion in a most extreme and devastating way.
They gave us a wonderful welcome when we visited them and after we shared a simple meal we attended a public meeting with some members of the community who are being supported by DSS. The stories that were shared that day by victims of rape, abuse, beatings and many other atrocities at the meeting were hard to voice and difficult to hear. Like the story of Renuka aged 14, which was shared with us by her elderly father (pictured below).
Renuka was studying in 5th class at school, having successfully passed the entrance test for a good Residential school and achieving well, despite constant bullying by both classmates and teaching staff because of her caste. An incident occurred at her school dormitory when one of her classmates caused a disturbance during the night and the teachers came to the dormitory and beat and punished all the students for the disturbance. Renuka suffered a head injury in this incident and was admitted unconscious to hospital and as a result, this reflected badly on the behaviour of the teaching staff. When she recovered, the school refused to readmit her as a student, blaming her for the loss of the school’s reputation.
Despite numerous appeals to the school from her family, Renuka’s dream of a higher education was shattered, her opportunity to realise her full potential denied. Dejected by the behaviour and accusations of the school management, Renuka drenched herself in kerosene and set herself alight.
She suffered burns on 75% of her body and died from her injuries two weeks later. Before her death Renuka recorded a video testimony for the local magistrate. This film was shared with us. It was utterly harrowing to watch and we shared the sorrow of her parents and family at the tragic loss of their beautiful and gifted daughter. Renuka’s video evidence helped DSS to identify the teachers who were responsible for her ill treatment and to pursue justice through the courts. The case also highlighted the need to ensure the safety and protection of Dalit children in Residential schools and DSS were instrumental in seeking this with the relevant education authorities.
More than 170 million people across India continue to be subject to discrimination, exploitation and violence simply because of their caste. DSS work in 2,400 villages including slums in 7 different districts. We heard many, many stories like Renuka’s story. DSS is literally a lifeline for Dalit women and their families, offering practical care and support, pursuing cases like this through the court system to get justice for Dalit families.
The Director of DSS Mrs Jhansi, is an inspirational lady and it is clear that she leads their work and the staff and volunteer teams with energy and deep commitment. I never fail to be encouraged and motivated by the work of our partners and despite the huge task of addressing social exclusion in India, Christian Aid through the Change Alliance is reaching across 90 Districts in 7 states, campaigning to end Caste based discrimination and exclusion. There are no quick fixes, but there are small victories to share.
‘We cannot in a moment get rid of the habits of a lifetime,’ Mohandas Ghandi
Head of Church and Community, Christian Aid