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Dalit women organise ‘differently’



Organizing by Dalit women has always been examined, by many, using a wide array of lenses originating in hues of various political perspectives. To some, we are autonomous, leading our movement towards a collective vision. To others, we are stooges, perhaps of the Dalit men, maybe the savarna women or the donors, or for that matter … any other dog! The intersections of our vulnerabilities are often heightened by constant criticism and the pain of brokenness further exacerbated by the feeling of being undervalued.


Needless to say, like most of you, we also encounter a crisis almost every day. The intensity and impact of it vary; for us, it can often be debilitating. We wish to believe that the brickbats thrown at us from within and from outside, has steeled us to only strengthen and sharpen our strategies for organizing. For it is only by learning and unlearning each day, the women from our community have been able to come thus far.


Apart from many other new beginnings, the side event in Geneva during the 38th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva brought to life many of these varying hues. There were many who were struck with disbelief that Dalit women have actually reached the hallways of the United Nations! There were others who were quick to brush it aside as ‘some stupid NGO thing’. A handful of them chose to stand in ‘solidarity’ and the others remained conveniently ‘watchful’ from a distance.


For the collective of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, popular on social media as #dalitwomenfight the process of organizing such a side event was an immensely difficult and challenging task. But, it was one that was carefully thought through; and rooted in the voices and narratives of sisters from the community.


Exactly a year ago, we conducted a mini-workshop in Geneva with multiple stakeholders, including UN staff and others who claimed to be in solidarity with the anti-caste struggles. Here we discussed in detail about the process post-WCAR Durban conference and all the attempts that have been made in the past to push the global audience to campaign against caste violence and untouchability. It was during this workshop, we also made clear the need for centering voices of Dalit women and placed our expectations of ‘solidarity’. Towards the end, it was clear that Dalit women would conceive, plan and execute our actions by ourselves and seek support and solidarity when required.


This attempt by the collective was to link each leader at the frontline to the process at the Human Rights Council. Several trainings on International Human Rights mechanisms were done in the past year, with a hope of gauging the necessity to continue this engagement with the UN. At every stage, we tried our best to bring in opinions and views of our sisters within the collective.


We decided to work on a report to enable voices of Dalit women leaders who are battling all odds to counter oppression and support vulnerable communities. The writing of the report was one such process that brought in new perspectives and opened up spaces for collective thinking and articulation. The report turned out to be a reflection of an internal struggle attempting to trace the underlying factors for our extreme vulnerability as dalit women and also the exploration of strategies used to advance the resistance.


For the campaign video, which we presented at the side event, we struggled hard to locate the filmmaker behind the camera, who would bring in the lived experiences of our sisters. Not in a pitiful way, but in an affirming and powerful manner. Dalit women have for long attempted to break the patronising projection of our violated bodies and our families. Through this video, we brought the voices of Dalit women leaders who are battling impunity while supporting survivors of caste violence.


Our twitter handle @dalitwomenfight is perhaps the only organized effort of Dalit women in social media that brings voices of Dalit women into the virtual space. Slowly overcoming the issues relating to access to technology and language, Dalit women leaders have shown incredible creativity in utilizing social media to promote the ground level campaigns. This did not appear out of thin air, rather through meticulous hand holding and training to overcome our insecurities and dispel myths about social media. Today, with over 17,000 followers on Twitter, women who are first generation learners and fighters are speaking to the world. Few days before the side event, we conducted a tweetathon featuring activists who have engaged with UN on matters relating to ending discrimination based on work and descent. Each of the Dalit women leaders from AIDMAM, used Twitter effectively for the side event in Geneva, thus bringing it to the attention of the ‘mainstream media’ who then contacted us furiously to cover the event. This eventually generated great interest, which then resulted in over 20 articles and reports.


Throughout the process of planning and executing this programme, we were reminded of the immense struggles faced by our foremothers and elders. Recognizing that history of resilience was important for us. We also featured a video interview of our pioneer, Dr. Ruth Manorama on our youtube channel.


The side event also raised important questions to International Human Rights Organizations. How is it possible to analyze, strategize and plan campaigns on human rights issues whilst being caste-blind? The key questions raised was that of accountability for all human rights champions and institutions to not reiterate the position of the government, but instead, take brave steps to support local/global actions towards ending impunity.


Of course, Dalit women raised critical questions to the Indian Government about the institutional bias and complete failure of the criminal justice system in securing rights of Dalit women. We opened out the question of whether; these systems were designed in a way to fail us? Is it even possible to dream of a just world free of caste and other structural oppressions, by investing our energy in fixing a system that is any way conspiring against us?? Within the UN contexts, India has always used the ‘development’ jargon to counter questions related to caste atrocity. It is nothing but a pathetic solution offered through piecemeal government schemes to address centuries of oppression. The outright arrogance of Indian representatives in the UN and refusal to address gross human rights violations on Dalit women is a reflection of the caste bias that feeds into the pipeline of impunity. Despite the fear of reprisals, Dalit women are left with no other choice but to ask these uncomfortable questions. How long can India promote itself as a global superpower, while feeding on violence on its most vulnerable women?


This side event in Geneva brought energy and motivation to the Dalit women leaders further committing to create innovative and bold strategies to strengthen our organizing. We were joined by several of our co-sponsors – including International Movement against Racism and Discrimination, Human Rights Watch, Minority Rights Group, Forum Asia, Anti-Slavery and Franciscans International. Solidarity and support from International Dalit Solidarity Network at various stages of planning was critical.


The UN Special Procedures and Treaty bodies have much to offer to the Dalit women’s movement. Monitoring domestic legislations and linking with the International human rights mechanisms is a task that the Dalit women’s movement will further strategise on. Scaling up the local with the global campaigns is perhaps the cornerstone where we are standing now.


Fierce. Bold. Brave. Beautiful. This is the movement led by Dalit women in India. There is nothing for us to lose but everything for us to win, as we march on with the spirit of resistance in our hearts, to sound the death knells of the caste system. 


Jai Bhim.



Asha is General Secretary of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM).




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