GRSJ224Discrimination Dalit Women In India

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Dalit [Untouchable] Women in India

The Dalit are a low caste in India (also known as the “untouchables), and women born within this caste face particular forms of oppression, violence, misery, discrimination, and indignity (Grey, 2016, p. 23-24). Among other difficult manual labors, Dalit women are involved in manual scavenging, which means “handling and disposing of human excrement,” “cleaning sewage and sweeping roads” (Grey, 2016, p. 24). Over 70 million people in India still use dry latrines and more than 100 million Dalits are involved in cleaning them together with other tasks, like handling solid waste and industrial waste (Grey, 2016, p. 30-31). The Indian government has outlawed “scavenging” in 2013 under the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. Yet, the Indian Railways – a government company – is the largest employer of manual scavengers in India (Suresh, 2017). 9.6 million dry latrines in India are still manually emptied even though this has been forbidden since 1993 – 1.3 million manual scavengers are identified as Dalit and mostly women. These menial and undignified jobs have led to the portrayal of Dalit women as a mythical “site of evil and pollution,” but in reality, these are bodies of suffering and victimization (Gupta, 2016, p. 55).

The Dalit women were made, not born. Much like gender, social class and/or caste is a social construct. The existence of Dalit women is the result of interlocking systems which define one's identity, including education (or lack thereof), tradition, caste, community, gender, sexuality, and family (Paik, 2016, p. 14-15).

Dalit women: Features

These women are described as restless, working much harder than men, being much stronger and resilient than men, logging in more hours than men and earning more money, as well as being the only ones with a lot of freedom to populate the public space because they travel for work (Grey, 2016, p. 25). These women are not bound by “husband worship” and they “have a recognized economic value” which is free from dowry (Grey, 2016, p. 37). Grey (2016) stresses that hard work is not “a cause of resentment and resistance, but the injustice of the conditions within which Dalit women have to work” are simply inhumane (p. 25).

Dalit women’s work and its consequences – Social Conditions

Being born in slums means little or no access to education and a guaranteed lack of access to any upper castes or opportunities – these women are also excluded from many social areas, including but not limited to “temples, the caste panchayat, Festivals, cremation grounds, the room of a newly-delivered woman, the upper caste wells” (Grey, 2016, p. 41). The killing of a Dalit women is justified as a “minor offence” by Brahmins (Grey, 2016, p. 43). When girls reach puberty, lack of privacy for washing makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment. Moreover, many girls are taken to temples to be sold or given to a God or Goddess, and they become temple prostitutes, which is part of caste-enforced prostitution (Grey, 2016, p. 42). Lack of access to medical care means having to rely on traditional practitioners, a practice which sometimes has fatal results (Grey, 2016, p. 27). Improper nutrition means at least 56% of Dalit women suffer from anemia and other conditions associated with malnutrition (Grey, 2016, p. 27). Dalit women’s daily struggles include getting access to water; then food and fuel/fodder, because they are forced to draw water from their own caste-specific wells and are punished if they use upper-caste wells (Grey, 2016, p. 29). Because of the work they do – the long hours and travel conditions – Dalit women are exposed constantly to sexual harassment, and in cities they are often treated as prostitutes (Grey, 2016, p. 24). They suffer insults and are often the target of gang rapes, but this crime is not recorded as rape and less than 5% of reported cases ever make it to court (Grey, 2016, p. 44).

Dalit Women in a Feminist Era

The struggles of women like the Dalit women are or should be a feminist issue - the fact that millions of women around the world experience a life of misery reveals that we are NOT in a postfeminist era. Feminism is as needed as ever. The Dalit women's issues appeal to feminists interested in caste/race issues, gender issues, eco-feminism, and Marxist feminists focusing on equality (Rege, 2000).

Most of the literature on “untouchables” in India is distinctly male-centric – the gender-specific struggles of women needs to be brought to the forefront (Gupta, 2016, p. 55-57). Dalit women are low in literacy, have internalized social stigma and struggle against violence on a daily basis (Grey, 2016, p. 30). Their gendered struggle needs to be understood along with racism and social relations. In spite of their being women, Dalit women cannot relate to upper-caste feminist struggles so class is an important variable in their experiences. Dalit women's experience also appeal to eco-feminism, as they are struggling for land rights, finding sustainable agricultural practices, resisting cash crops required by globalization, and conserving water (Grey, 2018, p. 30). Women often suffer domestic abuse due to unhappy marriages and men’s addiction to alcohol. Many men also take off with prostitutes and leave their wives and children behind, but this practice needs to be understood within social conditions which diminish and emasculate low caste males (Grey, 2016, p. 40). Almost every Dalit community has some form of Women’s group. Women’s circles are imperative in protecting and helping victims of domestic and other forms of abuse, and they can be a good place to start for feminism which wants to be more inclusive, grassroots and non-classist. Rape can and should be seen as a “weapon in the caste war,” because rape is associated with dishonouring Dalit men, with humiliating them (Grey, 2016, p. 45). Thus, rape is a feminist issue but also needs to be understood in the context of race relations and colonial history which encouraged some castes' superiority. Today, actions related to women’s movement often doesn’t operate in the countryside and often ignores the Dalit women in the cities because they are a marginalized group. Temple prostitution needs to be understood not just as rape but also as the effects of Brahmanic patriarchy, which is a gendered-tool against low-caste women and children (Gupta, 2017, p. 57).

Experiments on the bodies of Dalit women

Dalit women are often targets of population control and medical testing under the guise of "family planning" (Grey, 2016, p. 46-47). The feminist agenda which focuses on the medicalization of racialized and gendered bodies needs to focus more on this demographic.


Grey, M. C. (2016). A cry for dignity: Religion, violence and the struggle of Dalit women in India. Taylor & Francis eBooks. London; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.

Gupta, C. (2016). Dalit women as victims: Iconographies of suffering, sympathy and subservience. South Asian History ad Culture, 7(1), 55-72.

Harding, L. (9 May, 2001). Sex hell of Dalit women exposed. The Guardian, New Delhi. Retrieved from:

Paik, S. (2016). Forging a new Dalit womanhood in colonial western India: Discourse on modernity, rights, education, and emancipation. Journal of Women's History, 28(4), 14-40.

Rege, S. (2000). 'Real feminism' and Dalit women: Scripts of denial and accusation. Economic and Political Weekly, 35(6), 492-495.

Suresh, S. (August 3, 2017). The politics of shit in India. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: