Dalit Women, Justice, Rights: Finding a Voice An Excerpt from a lecture by Dr. Ruth Manorama

27, Nov 2017 | Dr. Ruth Manorama

“My final words of advice to you are Educate, Agitate and Organize;

have faith in yourself.

With justice on our side I do not see how we can loose our battle.

The battle to me is a matter of joy.  The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual.

There is nothing material or social in it. 

For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power.  It is battle for freedom.

It is the battle of reclamation of human personality!” 

                                                                                       _____________   B. R. Ambedkar.


Caste based discrimination has perpetuated “untouchability” and social exclusion resulting in high levels of socio-economic inequality and political polarisation. Age-old discriminatory practices and prejudices operate at multiple levels and conspire to keep the Scheduled Castes (who constitute 16.23% of total population of India) in a subordinate position. Despite the promulgation of various legislations and policy measures such as Article 17 abolishing untouchability, human rights of Scheduled Castes are infringed upon and violated round the clock. Heinous, inhuman and terrorizing forms of atrocities are carried out against the Scheduled Castes (hereafter dalits), especially on the women belonging to these communities.

Dalit women and girls (who constitute 49.96% of the total Dalit population) face discrimination from state and non-state perpetrators. They are particularly vulnerable and exposed to multiple forms of discrimination and violence, including sexual violence. Dalit women face social exclusion and the oppressive cycle of disadvantage which has its roots in the institutions of caste and patriarchy. Dalit women are the ‘dalits among the dalits’, as they are thrice alienated – on the basis of caste, class and gender.


Dalit women are persistently denied their basic Human Rights, Respect and Dignity.

Dalit women are vulnerable to targeted forms of violence. These forms include stripping and parading naked, violence associated with allegations of practicing witchcraft, sexual exploitation, trafficking and prostitution, including ritualized prostitution under Devadasi/Jogini practices, and domestic violence. They face discrimination in the payment of unequal wages and gender violence at the workplace that includes fields [as agricultural labourers], on the streets [as manual scavengers and garbage pickers], in homes [as domestic workers], and through religious customs.[1] Dr. B. R. Ambedkar highlighted that the “dalit women face the paradox of being socially regarded as untouchable and polluted but still being exploited in the most intimate spheres of their existence”.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women has noted that Dalit women face targeted violence, even rape and death, from state actors and powerful members of dominant castes who used to inflict political lessons and crush dissent within community. Similarly, in its 2007 concluding comments, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) noted its concern about the alarming number of allegations of acts of sexual violence against Dalit women, primarily by dominant caste men.

The National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) reported a total of 1349 rape cases of Dalit women for 2010, with the state of Madhya Pradesh reporting 316 cases, followed by Uttar Pradesh with 311 cases. There are cases of kidnapping and abduction of women, with Uttar Pradesh alone accounting nearly 48.5% of the 511 cases for 2010. Notably, there is no disaggregated data on atrocities against Dalit women. Young dalit girls suffer systematic sexual abuse in temples, serving as prostitutes for men from dominant castes. Thousands of Dalit girls are forced into prostitution every year through the practice of temple offering called ‘Devadasi’ and ‘Jogini’.

In the recent past, there is an increased trend in the denial of basic livelihood rights, growing numbers of atrocities, land alienation and labour rights violations, denial of access to any place or service, obstruction to political participation, negligence of law enforcement authorities in filing complaints, undue delays in police investigation and trial of cases and abysmally low conviction rate etc.  In such instances of discrimination and violence, one notices certain striking features: (i) continuing pattern of discrimination and violence, (ii) increase in frequency of occurrences, (iii) newer and multiple forms of discrimination and atrocities, (iv) the use of systematically designed and well- executed methods of subjugation and exclusion and (v) violence against dalit women.

The marginalisation of dalit women is specifically compounded by the absence of quality education, poor school infrastructure and restricted choice to continue education. Poor development indicators and disproportionate representation of dalit women in decision making is a cause of concern. The recent manifestation of violence experienced by dalit women is while asserting their political participation. Women are coerced into acting as proxy representatives. Discrimination, sexual harassment and physical violence against dalit women panchayat leaders trying to effectively discharge their role is rampant.

Despite several constitutional, legal and welfare programs in place to prevent and eliminate caste based discrimination; their ineffective implementation has rendered these provisions notional. Government records and reports, independent and credible research institutes present an alarming picture of the situation of the women affected by caste based discrimination and violence. It is to be noted that the implementation of the protective legislation to protect the life, honour, and dignity of dalit women needs stringent implementation.


Dalit Women:   Finding  a Voice

In the 1990’s , a growing and autonomous Dalit Women’s Movement began to impress upon the Women’s Movement in India to rethink its agenda, reorient its thinking, so that the full reality of the struggles of the Dalit Women could be recognized in its specificity. Therefore, there was a strong feeling that  dalit women need to organize themselves in order to address their special needs and problems.  This organization meant to be autonomous, to have secular as well based on democratic principles. It is a platform formed in the post Ambedkarite period as well as Women’s movement in the post Independent era.  It has built alliances with other progressive women’s movement particularly the marginalized.

They have organized themselves both at the national and international levels and established National Federation of Dalit Women(NFDW) in 1994.  Again at the global level, the “UN World Conference on Against Racism” held in Durban, South Africa in 2001 provided an opportunity to National Federation of Dalit Women(NFDW) to contextualize the dalit women suppression similar to Racism.  National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights(NCDHR) and NFDW  adopted Delhi Declaration  in 2006 on Violence Against Women.

Several dalit women’s groups have emerged from 90’s to promote dalit feminist activism to address their vulnerability to exploitation, discrimination leading to their further marginalization. Writings of Dalit Women further enriched dalit  literary movement  and observed that the dalit women’s activism and their literature  are inseparable.  In Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu NFDW have established Dalit Women’s Lawyers Forums to take up cases of Human Rights Violations.  NFDW also trained about 1500 dalit women as human rights defenders all over the country to protect and promote  human rights. Dalit Women’s Movement is growing and they met in 2015 in New Delhi and declared that the younger women would lead and strengthen the movement.


Dalit Men, Women, Youth and Students in the dalit movements demand their Right to Life free from ‘Untouchability’, Right to Life with Self Respect and Dignity, Educational equality and parity and Relevant economic policies and programmes for development and economic liberation and with due share of National Resources and Wealth, Self reliance.  Revitalization and effective implementation of Scheduled Caste Sub Plan, Dalit friendly personnel policy.  Access to Justice and Address impunity against atrocities and exploitation.



Dr. Ruth Manorama is National Convenor, National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW). This is an excerpt from a lecture delivered on 10th November, 2017


[1]9 National Federation of Dalit Women, NGO Declaration on Gender and Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, World Conference Against Racism, 28 August to 7 September 2001, Durban, South Africa. National Federation of Dalit Women, Reading Materials prepared for the National Consultation on Gender and Racial Discrimination, New Delhi, February 2001.



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