Rights of the Socially Excluded

Suraiya Begum *

 

Continuing and pervasive social discrimination against caste based communities demonstrates the State's failure to meet its constitutional obligations to ensure equality and non-discrimination, in particular its failure to undertake affirmative action in this regard. As a consequence of such discrimination, these communities have been deprived of equal access to education, health and other development opportunities. This chapter identifies some of the prevalent forms of caste based discrimination in Bangladesh. It also notes the means used by some communities to establish their rights.

 

International and Constitutional Obligations

Article 1 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) defines racial discrimination as,

“…any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” [1]

Article 28(3) of the Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees that:

“No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth be subjected to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to any place of public entertainment or resort, or admission to any educational institution.”

Further, under Article 28(4) the State is obliged to “…make special provision in favour of women and children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens.”

State Policies

The State has not taken any pro-active steps to correct the discrimination and deprivation faced by these communities. The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) [2] has not discussed poverty as a consequence of social exclusion. Nor have the causes of poverty within this group been segregated from the causes of poverty in other disadvantaged groups. The PRSP has identified only a few communities, such as Bawalis (who live in the Sundarban forests), Mawalis (honey collectors in Sundarbans), Bedeys ( river gypsies), Methors (sweepers), Dalits (Sweepers, sewerage cleaners and scavengers), Mymal (fisherfolk on large water bodies), Moochis (leather workers), Nagarchi (traditional folk singers), Koolies (tea garden workers). Many other caste communities include the Buno, Munda, Manta, Bagdi, Dom, Rishis , Kawras , who rear pigs, and Horijons amongst others. [3]

Due to their social status, these marginalised communities have remained largely invisible in Government records and therefore have been left out of various development strategies. Implementation of the PRSP as it currently stands may mean that such persons may not be able to benefit fully from poverty reduction policies.

Social Discrimination

Socially excluded communities, who form about one per cent of the total population of Bangladesh, live predominantly in the south west and are scattered around other parts of the country. They are still treated as ‘lower castes' or ‘untouchables' even by Muslims, although caste is not recognized in Islam. For example, in certain areas they are not allowed to drink tea in restaurants, or are given separate cups; barbers do not let them enter their shops. There is also a hierarchy amongst these communities, and one caste considers itself superior and looks down upon the others; as a result inter-caste marriages are frowned upon by the communities.

Example of Discrimination in a School

An incident in Tala thana, Satkhira district in September 2006 illustrates the problem of social discrimination faced by 33 per cent of the population of the area. In Islamkati Shujonshaha village, the Shu jonshaha and Baukhola Primary School planning committee had allocated funds for buying and renting utensils and furniture for a school function. A young teacher of the Rishi caste proposed that they could borrow utensils from the Rishipara so as to save money. Another teacher objected, “Why should we cook in a shoe maker's pan? We will use clean pans.” This led to heated arguments and the teacher raised the matter with the school committee, which decided to rent the equipment rather than enter into a controversy. Even after the incident he was rebuked. The Upazilla Education Officer also ignored his complaint. The teacher's regret was: “I may be born to a shoe-maker, but my professional identity is that of a school teacher. Why am I not respected as a teacher?” [4]

Access to Social and Economic Rights [5]

Social discrimination leads to deprivation from opportunities for development and access to public services. The Rishi community has complained that their health suffers due to poor sanitation, arsenic contaminated ground water, lack of trained nurses, ignorance of reproductive rights and health, and lack of access to medical care even in public hospitals. Many Rishis do not feel free to exercise their right to vote, since they are either intimidated from going to the polling centres, or are forced to vote for a locally influential person.

Children from socially excluded communities, particularly from the sweeper and Rishi community are usually not allowed into schools; even after the introduction of compulsory primary education some have been admitted, but they are treated differently, for example, they are made to sit in the back of the classroom, away from other students. As a result, in Tala thana, Satkhira district, only one Rishi has succeeded in passing the HSC examination. The elders in the community are themselves not eager to send their children to school because they are afraid that they would be treated badly and also because they do not see the opportunity cost of education accruing to them. Many Horijon children said they were afraid to go to school, as they felt isolated and were humiliated by both teachers and students.

Some examples of the violations of rights faced by particular communities are given below:

· The Kawras are considered as polluted by the Muslims because they rear pigs. They are not always allowed to use common grazing land; they cannot obtain medical care from the Upazilla Livestock Officer for their livestock, nor is pig rearing included in the Department's annual plan. Kawra women are not employed in rice mills because of their caste identity.

· The Horijons of Kushtia complain that even after passing school exams they are not considered eligible for any job other than that of sweepers. In most places they are employed as casual labour on daily wages. Thus, sweepers employed by Municipal Corporations are not entitled to a provident fund or gratuity unlike other staff, thus they have no savings at the end of their working life. Because of the extreme competitiveness for jobs, they are being deprived of their traditional jobs as well. In some places, sweepers' jobs are given to Muslims, who then get the work done by Horijons at a lower wage.

· Bedeys are gypsies who live on boats. They cannot claim a right to land and are deprived of the right to vote, because they have no settled address.

· Each community lives in a segregated area, but without the security of tenurial right to the land. The Municipality allotted land to sweepers, but the physical conditions are extremely unhygienic. Even if some families can afford to buy land they are not able to move outside their own community environs.

Gender Discrimination

The women of the Dalit community are more likely than other women to be subjected to child marriage or dowry demands, and have no right to inherit parental property. Child marriage is quite common in the Bedey community, as is polygamy. Although the Bedey women are the main breadwinners, they face subordination within the family.

 

Collective Struggle for Rights

In the last few years, these marginalised communities have started organizing themselves and connecting with similar communities outside their own areas. Through collective appeals to the Government officials, they are trying to improve their situation and to demand access to development. In a few cases, they have persuaded the administration to take note of their concerns, as illustrated below:

· Usually, both public and private sector employees receive ‘festival bonuses' but the sweeper community in Kushtia Pouroshobha was not paid any festival bonus. In 2006, at the time of Durga Puja, about 50/60 women and men sweepers of Choitannopolli applied to the Kushtia Pouroshobha for a festival bonus, as observed by the Kumarkhali Pouroshobha. At first, the Chairman denied the existence of such a rule, but after examining the official papers from the Kumarkhali Pouroshobha, he agreed to pay the bonus at the next festival. [6]

· On 1 September, when Tutia Bashfor, of the sweeper community of Munshipara in Syedpur Pouroshobha went to Hirarlala Temple on Dinajpur Road to pray during the Radha Janmashtami Puja, she was turned away by other devotees. The community then submitted an application to the President and Secretary of Syedpur Hindu Kallyan Porishod. The latter apologized to everyone present and said that incidents of this kind would not be allowed in the future. They obtained permission to visit the temple along with other caste Hindus. [7]

· Several organisations are working with these communities and have joined their struggle for social recognition and access to opportunities. Organizations such as Friends Association for Integrated Revolution (FAIR) in Kushtia, Gram Bangla in Munshiganj and Savar, Gonogobeshona o Unnayon Foundation (GOUF) in Jessore, Udayonkur Sheba Sangshtha (USS) in Nilphamari, Poritran in Sathkhira, SEBA in Sayedpur, have tried to lobby on their account. They have formed a network which publishes a quarterly newsletter, with write ups by members of their own communities. FAIR has started seven primary school centres in three Upazillas in Kushtia for Horijon children, in preparation for admis- sion into the local Kindergarten School.

· On 19 October, several Horijons sat for an examination for selection of three sweeper posts, which were traditionally reserved for sweepers. When they found that three Muslims were appointed to these posts, they took out a broom and bucket procession on 22 October and submitted a memorandum to the District Commissioner. They were assured that the matter would be investigated and corrective steps taken.

After the problems of the Bedey community were publicised in the media, initiatives were taken by the Government and by private groups to design alternative learning models. Mobile boat schools have been started for Bedey children, so that they are not deprived of education because of their nomadic life style. Vaccination programmes in cooperation with Upazilla officers and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have been started in Louhojong, Munshiganj district. The Bedeys have also applied for the right to vote and 1,300 were enlisted in the voter list in 2006.

Recommendations

Members of the socially excluded communities made the following recommendations to raise their social status and improve economic opportunities, during their participatory action research sessions: [8]

· Create awareness of the harmful effects of the caste system.

· Allocate khas land to such communities for residential and grazing purposes.

· Affirm their right to employment in all sectors.

· Provide them skills training.

· Ensure their entry into educational institutions at all levels.

· Pay festival bonus to municipal sweepers for Durga Puja.

· Amend the Municipal Manuals to ensure equality in employment and access to health.

 

Notes

* Suraiya Begum is Programme Officer at Research Initiatives Bangladesh.


[1] Q. Nazly, United Nations Human Rights Mechanism , ASK, Dhaka, 2000, p 47.

[2] Planning Commission, Unlocking the Potential, National Strategy for Accelerated Poverty Reduction, Government of Bangladesh, October 2005, p 155-56.

[3] F. Hassan, “The Socially Excluded”, in H. Hossain (ed.), Human Rights in Bangladesh 2005 , Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), 2006, p 247.

[4] R. Das, “How Long Will the Discrimination Continue?” in Antaj Jonogosthir Sanglap (Voices of Marginal Communities), Newsletter, Second Issue, December 2006, Kushtia.

[5] Several of these communities engaged in Participatory Action Research (PAR) in association with Research Initiatives Bangladesh (RIB) to identify their problems and solutions. For more details see RIB's unpublished mimeos: M. Das, “Socio-Economic Obstacles Faced by the Dalits and the Way Forward;” A.K.M. Maksud, “Action Research for Human Development in Bedey Community”, August 2006; M. Rahman, “Pig Rearing for Poverty Alleviation of Kawra People: An Action Research”, 2006.

[6] D. Akhtaruzzaman, “Poverty Alleviation and Empowerment Strategy of the Horijons”, RIB, 2006, p 64.

[7] A. Ali, “Self Enquiry of the Sweepers for Improving their Standard of Lives”, unpublished mimeo, RIB, 2007.

[8] See op.cit., RIB mimeo reports.