Human Face of Human Rights
A Dalit Community in Nepal
For centuries discrimination and social exclusion have kept the Dalit communities of eastern Nepal living in poverty.
Human Rights activist Janaki Devi Ram, herself a Dalit, says the 1,500-year-old Hindu tradition describes those born into the social group as 'untouchables', restricts their employment opportunities and treats them as outcasts of the societies in which they live.
'We are poor because we are Dalits and must pick up the carcasses of dead animals,' she says.
Six years ago Ms Devi Ram began a protest in the district of Siraha that has inspired and been repeated by Dalit communities across the country. 150 members of the Dalit community in the town of Lahan went on strike, demanding a just pay for their long hours of work.
'Immediately the high-caste farmers placed a blockade on us because we refused to pick up the carcasses,' she explains. Non-Dalit employers across the district barred them from using public services, the water supply and even buying food in the shops. One day into the blockade, Ms Devi Ram says, the Dalits' determination strengthened and more than one thousand staged a sit-in at the office of the Chief District Officer who ordered landowners to lift their blockade. A few weeks later 10,000 converged on the capital, Kathmandu , and submitted a letter of their grievances to the Prime Minister.
But the discrimination persists and earlier this year a similar protest over low wages in the village of Bhawaniput-Kalabanjur was met with physical abuse of the protesters as well as a blockade. A pregnant woman reported being punched in the stomach and pulled by the hair.
The United Nations human rights office in Nepal (OHCHR) is investigating a number of reports of caste-based discrimination including the beating, rape and murder of members of Dalit groups.
OHCHR officer Sushil Raj says the crimes against this group and their poverty are the result of the discrimination.
'It is important for everyone to understand the impact of discrimination on the lives of these people,' he says. 'All sectors of society can agree on action to change prejudices, empower those facing discrimination and ensure equal social and economic opportunities at the local and national levels".
Improving respect for human rights is fundamental to improving social and economic development as well as preventing the conditions that can lead to conflict. OHCHR Nepal is working with Dalit communities and activists to raise awareness of the impact on the society of discrimination.