Dalit girls learn about their rights in the villages of Rautahat

(This text is a translation from the original text in Finnish)

There is sand dust in the air. Little monkeys sit on the road. The rain season is yet to come and the riverbeds are dry. I see colorful trucks driving by. I am in the Rautahat district in the Terai region of Nepal, near the Indian border. I am here to visit the Dalit villages in which the NNDSWO (Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organisation) works.

According to different estimates approximately 13,6–20 percent of the Nepali population are Dalits. Caste discrimination is prohibited in the constitution of Nepal but the Dalits still face discrimination. The Dalits suffer from poverty, illiteracy, lack of education and landlessness.

The NNDSWO is founded in 1982. It is the oldest registered Dalit non-governmental organisation in Nepal. It has its background in the Dalit activist movement against caste-based discrimination and untouchability which started in the 1950s.

The NNDSWO does advocacy for the Dalit rights both on national and international level. It also works at the grassroots level with the communities to improve the education, participation and livelihoods of the Dalits. The NNDSWO is a member of the IDSN (International Dalit Solidarity Network). Also the Dalit Solidarity Network in Finland is part of the IDSN.

Discrimination when using the water tap

The executive director of the NNDSWO Mr. Mohan Singh Sunar takes me to our first destination, the Paswan community in the Sakhuwa Dhamaura VDC. The Paswan Dalits belong to the Madhesi Dalits. Two other Dalit groups in Nepal are the Hill Dalits and the Newar Dalits.

Vuohet ja lehmät lekottelevat kylänraitilla. Eletään vielä kuivaa kautta ennen sadekauden alkamista.
The villagers from the Paswan community face discrimination e.g. when using the public water tap.

I get a very warm welcome as the villagers give me orange and yellow flower garlands and a bunch of flowers. Sun is shining brightly, and there are cows and goats resting in the village yards. I also see dried animal manure on the ground which will be used as a fuel.

The local people earn their livelihood by doing seasonal work in agriculture and by making bricks. Some of them may also go to India for seasonal work.

The villagers tell me about the caste-based discrimination they face in their everyday life. There is discrimination when they access the public water tap. The people from the upper castes don´t allow the community members to use the tap at the same time with them. In the local festivals the Dalits sit separated from the other castes. They are discriminated also in the temples.

”Long live Samvad!”

The small house is full of happy laughter and talk. I sit down in a circle with young teenage girls. We are in the village´s Samvad center, which is like a girls´ club.

The Samvad centers are a project of the NNDSWO. The centers are places where girls can discuss e.g. child marriage, discrimination, menstruation and health issues. The goal is to increase the awareness of the girls about their rights, support their self-esteem and encourage them to go to school. The word “Samvad” means a dialogue.

Koulua  käyvä Shanti (valkoinen huivi) on roolimalli Samvad-keskuksen tytöille.
”Long live Samvad”, say the girls and raise their hands. Shanti (white scarf) is the role model for the girls.

The Samvad group where I visit has just started to work. Majority of the girls in the group don´t go to school. One reason is that the parents are not aware of the importance of the education of the girls or they are not aware that there is an opportunity for girls to go to school. Other reason is that the children may need to go to work because of the poverty.

”Long live Samvad!” says every girl in the circle on their turn and raise their hand. After that they introduce themselves.

It is an important ritual. Introducing oneself is one of the first things that girls are taught in the Samvad center. It is a big step as the girls might look at the floor or even cover their face when they first come to the center.  Introducing oneself is a way to build self-confidence and make one visible.

In the Samvad center we also meet Shanti, a girl who has participated Samvad center activities earlier and now goes to school. She is a role model for the other girls. It is hoped that her example would encourage also the other girls to go to school. Now Shanti has encouraged two other girls to perform a dance performance with her for us visitors.

Samvad-keskuksessa tytöt oppivat omista oikeuksistaan ja keskustelevat syrjinnästä ja lapsiavioliitoista.
The Samvad center  in Raghunathpur VDC is a place where the girls can learn about their rights and discuss e.g. child marriage and health issues.

During the same day I visit another new Samvad group which is in the Raghunathpur VDC. Although the groups have not yet worked a long time it can be observed that the girls in both centers have already got more confidence. In addition to the dance show two girls sing to us. The songs are about the rights of the girls and about the sanitation. The latter song says “we don´t need fancy mobile phones, we need a toilet”.

Text and photos: Minna Havunen, the chair of the Dalit Solidarity Network in Finland, visited Nepal in the spring 2017.

Read more about the human rights situation of the Dalits in Nepal.

Vuohet ja lehmät lekottelevat kylänraitilla. Eletään vielä kuivaa kautta ennen sateiden alkamista.