By Rebecca Chant
Coming from a country with a total population of 35 million people, it is hard for me to imagine a population as large as 250 million - never mind that this entire group is considered outcast. Two-fifty million people born into disadvantage, who continue to be victims of violence and injustice. The Dalit population is seven times that of Canada, and yet a large percentage experience discrimination, abuse and rape every single day.
I had never been to India before, but it was always a dream of mine. I had images of bright coloured clothes, overwhelming smells, deafening noises, maybe a little Bollywood flair and definitely lots of mouth-watering food. I also knew that there were serious issues about women's rights, including inequality, sexual abuse and lack of education. I knew there was a caste system that was a detriment to many. I knew there would be some garbage on the road, and children begging for money and that my heart would break every time I said "no" to them. I knew that many women would not have the freedoms that I have taken for granted back home. I knew all that, which is why I came to India to volunteer.
What I didn't know was the extent of inequality that existed. I didn't know the Dalit caste was thought to be so low in importance that girls were forced into prostitution, abused by their husbands while their parents-in-law sat next-door, disrespected by teachers until they dropped out of school. That is, if they went to school at all. Between lack of physical facilities, caring for younger siblings and housework, child labour, family resistance to schooling, and other reasons, there are too many girls in India who are not educated. Some girls aren't allowed to go to school because their dowry would be increased if they did. These same girls are being married off before menstruation even begins.
I'm in shock.
Walking around Jodhpur, where I am currently volunteering, you don't see any of this. Yes, you see people sleeping on the sidewalks and asking for food, but those are the only obvious injustices you notice while out eating, shopping and living day-to-day.
It was only by volunteering with Sambhali Trust, a local NGO that works to empower women and children, many of whom are Dalit, that I began to discover the realities of being born into an untouchable family, particularly for girls. Sambhali, among others, is taking necessary action against these inequalities.
At the empowerment centre I am volunteering with, the girls are wonderful. They are smart, motivated to learn, love giggling with their friends and particularly enjoy when we have an art workshop. With two other overseas volunteers, we teach about 30 girls both English and math at varying levels. There are also Hindi and sewing classes, so that when the girls leave the centre they are equipped with basic skills to promote self-confidence and economic independence.
" Some girls aren't allowed to go to school because their dowry would be increased if they did."
During a recent class, some of the girls were asked what their dream careers would be. The answers were what you'd hope for in any class: teachers, doctors and chefs. That, right there, is proof that providing girls with education and a safe space can make a difference. When we're teaching, we get to see the girls for who they truly are: creative, funny, outspoken, eager to learn, and unhesitatingly willing to help others. Knowing that these girls go home to a double or triple disadvantage (caste, poverty and gender) is a reality that most visitors to India cannot fully comprehend, and a reality that needs to change.
I, myself, was not fully aware of the severity of this disadvantage until I started to get to know the girls and their stories at the empowerment centres, which prompted me to research issues pertaining to the Dalit community. The more I research and the closer I become with the girls at the centres, the more I realise that organisations like Sambhali Trust are essential to help break down some of the many barriers of inequality.
Like Dr. Ambedkar said, "...education is the greatest material benefit for which [the scheduled castes] can fight", and I'm proud to be part of an organisation that is providing opportunities to women who are otherwise neglected.
As for my shock? I am constantly upset, but the first step towards equality is awareness, and the second step is taking action--which is exactly what I plan to do.
About the author: Rebecca Chant's year-long trip around the world led her to take action against gender inequality. She is currently volunteering in Jodhpur at Sambhali Trust, a women's empowerment NGO. Rebecca also runs the feminist advocacy site www.femvocates.com.