By Dr Cesar Chelala
One can fight oppression with violence or with education. Hema Konsotia, a 34-year-old Indian woman, has chosen the latter. She is helping to change a situation affecting an estimated 165 million Indian Dalits.
Also known as the “untouchables”, Dalits are a mixed population of numerous caste groups found all over South Asia. Although the caste system has been abolished under the constitution of India, there is still widespread discrimination and prejudice against Dalits, particularly women.
The word “Dalit”, which may be derived from Sanskrit, means “ground”, “suppressed”, “crushed” or “broken to pieces”, terms that seem to express the humiliation Dalits suffer at the hands of the upper castes in Indian society. Dalits have often been associated with occupations considered as impure, such as butchering, removing garbage and cleaning streets, latrines and sewers.
Although some progress has been made, Dalits are frequently denied such basic rights as education, housing, property, freedom of religion, choice of employment and fair treatment before the law. Particularly in rural areas, discrimination doesn’t allow Dalits equal access to eating places, schools, temples and water sources.
To improve the situation of the Dalits, the government of India passed the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) in 1989, which classified specific crimes against Dalits as “atrocities”, and established punishments to counter these actions. In addition, the POA created special courts to try cases registered under it. However, a 1999 study showed that nearly a quarter of those government officials charged with enforcing the POA were unaware of its existence.
In 2006, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh drew parallels between “untouchability” and apartheid. Every 20 minutes a crime is committed against Dalits, according to one government report. Although distressing, it probably represents a fraction of all crimes against Dalits, since most of them remain unreported for fear of reprisals.
Hema Konsotia has been working to change that situation. She is a union activist and college graduate, leader of New Delhi’s sewage workers and their wives. For the past 12 years, she has been fighting to empower them and make them aware of their rights, while improving their education through mobile education centres she has created in Delhi.
A woman of strong character, she has the unwavering support of her mother, who had been through an abusive marriage herself, and she is determined that Dalits, particularly women, will not suffer what women of previous generations did.
Centuries of discrimination has affected the health and quality of life of the Dalits and their children. For most of them, good health care is still unaffordable and inaccessible.
The maternal mortality rate is a reflection of the difficulty of access to healthcare: there are 560 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 13 per 100,000 for industrialised countries. Prenatal and neonatal care is extremely limited. As a result, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. And for every woman who dies during pregnancy and childbirth, about 20 more suffer injuries, infections and disabilities that may seriously affect their health.
Child statistics are equally distressing, since 56 children per 1,000 who are born alive die before reaching the age of five, a rate that compares with five children per 1,000 in industrialised countries. In addition, both women and children experience an alarming rate of physical and sexual abuse.
In January 2007, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women concluded that Dalit women in India suffer from “deeply rooted structural discrimination”. Proud and determined, Hema Konsotia’s work with New Delhi’s poor has already made a difference.
Dr Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights