They are labelled the ‘Dalits’ – the ‘untouchables’. Still today many people in Nepal are entrenched in this ‘centuries’ old Hindu caste system, not wanting to touch Dalit people or share a meal with them. The Dalits suffer at the bottom of the system that affects more than four million people in Nepal, approximately 20% of Nepal’s population.
Dalits are often subject to modern day ‘slavery’ conditions. “We are treated as less than animals…it’s very humiliating…it’s inhumane,” is the cry of many Dalits. Even though discrimination based on caste is outlawed, Nepalese society still restricts the Dalits from using public services and drinking from public taps. It also prohibits them entry into houses, temples, restaurants, milk collection centres and more.
Dalit families are generally neglected by society, and are often landless and deprived of economic opportunities. Dalit women and children are frequently forced to work in the households of their landlords without a fair wage. Some teachers don’t care for Dalit students and make them sit separately on the floor, isolated from ‘high-caste’ students. Often Dalit children are teased and bullied.
The good news is that the situation is improving. Attitudes are slowly changing amongst the younger generation and the government is trying to pass laws and special benefits to promote inclusion of Dalits into Nepalese society. For example, children under 5 from Dalit communities are entitled to receive Nepali Rupees 400 (~US$4) per month from the Government as a Nutrition allowance (for up to 2 children).
Organisations like World Vision have no racially discriminating boundaries and World Vision Nepal lives up to its vision of reaching the most vulnerable families like the Dalits.
During my recent field visit to Nepal I spent an unforgettable day in a typical Dalit community in Chisapani ADP. After being warmly welcomed with flower necklaces, we explored their village and had a chance to just sit and listen to their stories. The ladies were beautiful – inside and out – and shared their experiences with World Vision, being supported by Livelihoods and Health projects.
Some ladies were involved in the Goat Project. Others received training and awareness raising on maternal and newborn issues, with a focus on antenatal care, breastfeeding and nutritious infant and young child feeding. They explained how they can sell the goats they raise for extra income, and now they know how to properly feed their children nutritious food. Isolated communities like these rarely get access to such knowledge and skills, so they are thankful for organisations like World Vision Nepal whose staff come to their villages to teach them. In other areas, World Vision also works though local volunteer committees, called Village Child Protection and Promotion Committees (VCPPCs), who visit isolated communities like those of the Dalits, and spread awareness through ‘mobile meetings’. They talk with parents about child rights (e.g. education, food, and protection) and counsel them against child labour, child marriage, smoking, alcoholism etc. They also work with local governments to encourage them to provide the minimum rights of children. One World Vision staff member shared with me that a few months ago, she accompanied the VCPPC in one of their field visits and was shocked to hear Dalit women express to the VCPPC: “This is the first time someone has come talk to us, so please come more often!”
It was encouraging to witness our World Vision staff take the time to sit and talk with the mothers while using a mobile phone monitoring technique to document what knowledge and skills they had gained, and to assess whether the most vulnerable benefited from the programmes.
As we continued to discuss their experiences, I realised that at last, I found her! I finally found someone who drinks the milk from their goats! For years in my visits to Area Development Programs (ADPs) across Africa and Asia, I have been looking for someone who utilises goats for more than just an asset to sell for income. Surprisingly, I could not find anyone until this day (likely because not all goats are miking goats). Whenever I would ask communities, I would get funny looks as if I were crazy … no matter how much I would explain that goat milk is more nutritious and digestible than cow’s milk. It seemed to be a taboo topic.
Her name is Devi, a Dalit mother of three children (one is a registered child) who struggled to financially support her family. Seven years ago, after giving birth, she was unable to produce enough breast milk. As a Dalit community member, she had limited access to health care and support so her neighbour provided various alternatives such as packaged milk or buffalo milk from the market. However, Devi could not afford to buy milk consistently and whenever she did, the child fell sick. Later, another friend suggested she should give goat milk to her baby, and she helped to collect grass for the goat. Now, Devi’s child is healthy and is in Class 6 at school. She joined World Vision’s Goat Rearing Project a few years ago, as part of Chisapani Livelihood Project, and says, “I want to increase the number of goats and invest the earnings from my goats to care for my children’s education and health.” I was very excited to meet someone who, despite being isolated and facing discrimination, had the courage to take the initiative to solve her own challenges and to try something new to benefit her family. It would be interesting to see in the future if other families follow this example of raising goats for milk, in addition to those raised for meat/sale.
Before leaving, the Dalit ladies blessed us with delicious food to feast on. However, I felt awkward knowing that they themselves struggle to put food on the table (this dilemma is often experienced during visits to the communities we work with). Malnutrition remains one of Nepal’s most significant child health issues, with approximately 40% of children under-five years of age being stunted and 29% being underweight. These figures are much higher than the standard accepted World Health Organisation level. Moreover, studies have shown that Dalit children are more likely to be stunted and to have significantly higher malnutrition rates than those from the other ethnic groups. Stunting is caused by long term nutrition deprivation, often beginning in the first 1000 days after conception (before birth) and causes irreversible physical and cognitive damage. It also causes increased risk of death from infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and measles in childhood.
I left this Dalit village feeling proud to work with an organisation like World Vision, who’s work reaches those that are most vulnerable and isolated. I felt a sense of hope in the smiles and laughs of these beautiful Dalit women, as they strive to thrive in an unjust and inequitable society.