(Transcript of her speech at the National Convention on the Rights of Dalit Women Human Rights Defenders: ‘Dalit Women Speak’ on 17-18 January 2020, at HDRC, St. Xavier’s Campus, Ahmedabad)
First of all, I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to this conference on ‘Dalit Women Speak.’ Before coming to the topic which is given to me for today’s talk, I want to give focus on the main conference heading that is ‘Dalit Women Speak’. After reading this line, it immediately came to my mind, do we really see that Dalit women don’t speak?
The reality is that they speak a lot, and they have been speaking for generations in their houses, even outside within their community and in general society. But the fact is that people have unheard them, neglected their voices by thinking these women are illiterate, lower caste, uncivilized, poor, don’t have any culture. These comments from dominant castes reflect their mentality on caste and gender.
We Dalit women have been speaking, screaming, shouting, but nobody is listening or noticing our voice. Due to the caste system, their voices have been systematically killed: therefore, what do we have to do now? We have to start the movement ‘Dalit Women to be Heard’. Hereafter, the title of our conferences should be ‘Dalit Women to be Heard’.
Economic Empowerment and Caste Graded Inequality
Now I will go to my given topic, which deals with the stories of struggle towards economic empowerment and political participation of Dalit women. There are many stories related to this topic. As per my readings, field, and personal experiences, it has been seen our women were always empowered economically. It is history that, since generations, our women are working for the survival of their families. They even hadled money, though it was short, insufficient even to fulfill their basic needs.
Therefore, they always lived in acute poverty not because they were not earning but because they didn’t get sufficient return for their labor. Sometimes they had to work without asking for money because of their caste duty, like safai kamgar women, and would get leftover stale food for their work. Their labor was always invisible in mainstream society. They didn’t get justice for their labor, and this society is telling us you are not economically empowered. I tell them you people have not given justice to our women’s labor, time, skill, efforts, and that you made us financially deprived. Here, I would like to provide an example of my both paternal and maternal grandmothers, which is relevant for this topic.
My paternal grandmother was 4 std educated, almost 90 years back, my maternal grandmother was also illiterate: both of them were working from their childhood for their and their family’s daily survival. Both my grandmothers worked as landless laborers in the village for their family, children, husband, and other family members until they became old. My paternal grandmother worked approximately until she was over 80 years of age in the lands of the upper castes. My maternal grandmother worked in her own small plot of land. But how much would they get financially? Not even enough for their food. They and their family members were always starving with no good clothes, no proper school for the children, no chappals, nothing. Also, sometimes they had to face loss.
Now, the question arises: when did the discourse start highlighting the economic empowerment of women? When the education movement was started by our forefather Mahatma Jotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule. In the movement, when upper caste girls also started taking education, they and their family members began understanding the importance of education, and they started working outside, in offices. None of the upper caste (Brahmin) women would be found working in the farms. After education, they started working in offices. That’s when the discussions around women’s harassment at the workplace, equal pay, etc., started. Even now, in the unorganized sector, where mostly lower caste women are working, the condition of work is pathetic. We will find unequal wages between men and women, sexual harassment and rampant and unnoticed gender discrimination. Why? Because in the unorganized sector, lower caste women are working.
Another aspect is: those women are working and earning money by handling both responsibilities, at family and outside. Are they in the decision making position in their family? Do they decide how and where to spend their money? Those who don’t earn and depend on their husband or any member of their family–their condition is always financially dependent. But even those who are earning and don’t have any say in the decision making: in one sense, they also depend on someone else. Therefore, I feel it is not enough to earn, but it is also equally important to participate in decision making on what to do with this money, then only the real meaning of economic empowerment will be fulfilled.
Political Participation and Question of Equal Representation
If you talk about the political participation of Dalit women, you will find fewer cases where women are in dominating positions like Mayawati, and in recent times, Praniti Shinde and Varsha Gaikwad, etc. Unlike Mayawati, these two contemporary women have their fathers’ base in politics, and hence they are there in the politics. At the same time, we have to look at which party they are in? Are they in national parties like BJP, Congress, BSP, or state parties? Here two factors are significant: one is, do they have any linkages to go into politics, and two, in which party are they in? One more thing, are those in politics are really taking up issues of the unheard voices of our Dalit women?
On very few instances did they show enough concern to raise their voice for our women. Then who and how will our women’s issues come up in discssions and the public domain? I have this major concern. Now we, as Dalit women, whether in academics or working in the field on women’s issues or in politics, we have to come on one platform. And show some sensitivity and courage to speak of the unheard voices. Till then it will not be a national issue, like how upper caste women’s issues always get national coverage. By ending with this small suggestion and thankful to the organizers for inviting me for this conference and giving me the space to speak on a critical topic to start a new movement: ‘Dalit Women to be Heard’.
Hemangi Kadlak works as Assistant Professor at Amity University, Mumbai. She is the founder member of InfinIdea Foundation and an active member of the Phule-Ambedkarite movement.