The stench of cow dung surrounding her for most of the day does not make it easy for Karamjit Kaur to get through her work, but circumstances and social hierarchy led her to work at the home and fields of a local landlord in Punjab’s Sangrur town for several years. She cannot defy this social order despite efforts as Dalits here rarely think about moving up the ladder, given the heavily-entrenched caste system still prevalent in the state.
Kaur is not the first generation in her family to work for a local landlord, or “Jat” (an upper-caste Sikh). Her ancestors were forced into this job long before her. Other Dalits have also had to face the double whammy of being a woman as well as from a low caste, especially in the Malwa belt of Punjab. Most Dalits cannot earn a decent living in these parts because of the hegemony of upper-caste members.
‘Humiliation, sexual harassment at the hands of upper-caste men’
Jeet Kaur, 40, another Dalit woman from Mansa district, has to clean cowsheds and also do menial tasks such as cleaning utensils and the house of a local landlord. None of these women earn more than Rs 2,500 working in the homes of rich farmers.
According to official figures, of the total Scheduled Caste population in Punjab, only 35.88 percent constitute the workforce.
A survey conducted on the Scheduled Caste population across India brought to light that Andra Pradesh has the highest number of women from this community in the workforce (46.71 percent), while Punjab has the lowest, at 5.40 percent.
While official figures may have overseen the women engaged in menial work, these figures don’t prove that it is due to prosperity that only a few Dalit women work. In fact, humiliation and sexual abuse are the reasons for the low number, according to experts.
Dalit thinker and a former Indian Police Service officer based out of Uttar Pradesh, SR Darapuri, said Dalit women have to face double the discrimination. “Generation after generation, Dalit women are forced to work like bonded labourers in fields or homes of landlords,” he said. “In many cases, poor Dalits take loans from money lenders and get caught in a vicious circle. In many cases, Dalit women are afraid to even work due to humiliation at the hands of upper-caste people.”
Darapuri added that in the Doaba region, where Dalits are comparatively well off, women do not have to work.
There are several villages in Punjab with palatial houses and swanky cars, but the areas where Dalits reside are centuries behind the other neighbourhoods. Punjab is known for its rich cultural heritage and lifestyle, but the condition of these Dalit women is not common knowledge.
“I clean utensils and do other odd jobs at the home of the local landlord from 9 am to 1 pm. And then till 5 pm, I clean cattle sheds at another house. I earn Rs 1,500 from cleaning cattle sheds and Rs 1,000 from cleaning the house,” said Jeet Kaur, whose husband is a daily-wager like several other Dalit men.
While Dalits in the Malwa region do not own much land, many of them do have a cow or buffalo for extra income. However, the absence of fields at their disposal makes them depend on landlords for unused fodder. Most Dalits in the region are also in debt, which successive governments have ignored, leaving them no room to escape from the clutches of high-caste moneylenders.
“Violence against women takes a unique form when gender and caste intersect. The experiences of Dalit women present clear evidence of widespread exploitation, violence and indecent, inhumane treatment,” states a report of the International Dalit Solidarity Network, which works to end caste-based discrimination. “Their stories speak of physical and verbal abuse, forced labour, slavery, trafficking, abduction and sexual violence (including rape), which gives an insight into how their social position makes them vulnerable to human rights violations. Violence against Dalit women is most often used as a means of punishment and demonstration of power by dominant castes towards both the woman herself, and her community.”
Before the wheat and paddy season in Punjab, most Dalit women are employed to clean the fields and remove weeds and other unnecessary plants. While migrant labourers mostly sow the seeds, these women mostly do only the menial jobs. It is here that sometimes, they become victims of abuses and sexual exploitation, which is rarely reported.
The family of a Dalit girl in Patiala was boycotted after she alleged that her schoolteacher and upper-caste classmates discriminated against her and physically assaulted her last year.
‘Families targeted if cases reported’
Amandeep Kaur Deol, general secretary of the Istri Jagriti Manch, an organisation working for the welfare of women, said that the patriarchal society doesn’t allow Dalit women to express their anguish against the humiliation meted out to them by men from upper castes. “Last year, during the protests for the demand for one-third of the common panchayat land for Dalits, men from upper castes sexually harassed at least 51 women from the Dalit community,” she said.
Deol said that these Dalit women had become so immune to harassment that they don’t wish to report it. “If they report such incidents to the police, their family members are targeted, and they don’t get work opportunities,” he added.
Literacy rate among Dalit girls and women dismal
As per the 2011 census, the literacy rate among people from the Scheduled Caste community in Punjab was 64.81 percent, as compared to the total literacy rate of 75.84 percent in the state and 73 percent in India. The female literacy rate in the Scheduled Caste community in Punjab was at 58.39 percent, much below the total 70.73 percent in the state. Of the total 5.23 lakh families living below the poverty line, 3.21 lakh families belong to Scheduled Castes, which constitute 61.38 percent of the total families that live below the poverty line in the state.
Dropout rates among girls from the Scheduled Caste community in Punjab is very high — 30.13 percent at the primary level, 46.96 percent at middle level and 63.62 percent at the secondary level. The literacy rate among people from the general category in the state is 69.70 percent, against the 56.22 percent of Scheduled Castes. Female literacy rate among Scheduled Castes is very low — 48.25 percent — as compared to the 63.40 percent of the female literacy rate in the general category.