Stricken Dalit earthquake survivors have Lutheran help to fight inequity

(Photo: LWF / Lucia de Vries)Rosni Paryar, in front of her home, partially destroyed by Nepal's 7.8 magnitude earthquake that claimed 8,000 lives. She fears she will remain unemployed because she is of the Dalit caste.

India's Dalits were once known as untouchables in the days when the caste system had no laws against it.

And although India has more than 200 million Dalits, other countries such as neighboring Nepal have significant numbers.

Although discrimination was outlawed in Nepal by the 1962 Civil Code and 1990 Constitution, Dalits still face many obstacles to social, economic and political equality.

Dalit means "oppressed" in Marathi, and it is the self-chosen political name of the castes formerly considered "untouchable" according to the Hindu varna system.

Advertisement

The Indian federal government has tried to give Dalits a lift-up with affirmative action legislation.

In Nepal there are some 4.5 million Dalits and other countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the United Knigdom also have relatively high numbers of them.

Dalits are one of the five vulnerable groups which receive special attention from Lutheran World Federation Nepal.

"Dalit artisans do not have equal access to services even in normal times," says LWF Nepal Country Director Prabin Manandhar.

"They usually live in less accessible places, on hill tops for instance, and lack the political connections that are helpful to get support."

During the first relief phase, immediately after the massive 7.8 magnitude Nepal earthquake in April, LWF Nepal used a "blanket approach" of reaching out to all households in allocated areas.

"Dalit communities like Kusunthali received the same support as other villages," Manandhar says.

As LWF relief work now focuses on recovery, special emphasis is given to women-headed households, elderly people, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and Dalits.

In the 14 districts affected by the earthquake, 13 per cent of the population belongs to artisan castes such as tailors, cobblers, blacksmiths and "washer men."

As Dalits, they had a difficult life even before the earthquake.

With Nepal connecting to international markets, its homemade goods face competition from cheaper ready-made goods, making it harder for them to sell their products.

It is estimated that 41 per cent of Dalits live below poverty level.

DALITS TAINTED FROM BIRTH

Formerly referred to as "untouchables", members of this caste are tainted by birth in a system that deems them impure.

"What am I supposed to do now?" a worried and disheveled looking Rosni Paryar, 19, said looking at her collapsed house in Kusunthali village in the outskirts of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.

The top floor of her brick house is almost fully destroyed and the ground floor is filled with rubble. "Me and my family have been hit by the earthquake in two ways," she told the LWF.

Paryar is the first young woman in her village of 75 people to finish high school. She was preparing for the final exam in April when the earthquake destroyed all but one house in Kusunthali.

She now lives with her parents and three siblings in a temporary shelter. As her father is the only provider for the family, Paryar has also been looking for work for the past two months.

She applied to work as a teacher in different schools but has not yet been hired. "Without connections a person like me will not be selected," she says, despondent.

Paryar belongs to the caste of the tailors, together with other artisan groups, termed Dalits, the lowest Hindu caste.

In the 14 districts affected by the earthquake, 13 per cent of the population belongs to artisan castes such as tailors, cobblers, blacksmiths and "washer men."

As Dalits, they had a difficult life even before the earthquake.

With Nepal connecting to international markets, their homemade goods face competition from cheaper ready-made goods, making it harder for them to sell their products.

It is estimated that 41 percent of Dalits live below poverty level.

The LWF found that in Kusunthali, artisans have different needs from other groups.

None of the Dalit families own any land beyond that on which their houses are built.

Almost all of them depend on tailoring and daily wage labor to survive. Owning no land, only very few are eligible for a loan to rebuild.

FALLEN INCOME FROM TAILORING

The income from tailoring has been sharply reduced since the earthquake.

Almost all sewing machines were buried in the rubble. A few women continue to sew by hand and one surviving sewing machine was recently repaired.

Still, clients have stopped visiting the village. Private customers need all their money for rebuilding after the damage and therefore do not often order new clothes.

Many business customers are still closed mostly because staff has not shown up for work - they help their families in the villages planting and harvesting, or constructing better shelter.

Paryar wonders how her people will recover from the earthquake. "In my parents' generation almost nobody can read or write," she says.

"They have no power in this world and depend solely on manual work. My father has six mouths to feed. Without me having a job, how on earth can he manage?"

Manandhar says the story of Paryar can be repeated all over Nepal.

"While other families will soon be harvesting crops or get back to work and out of dependency, landless artisans will need much longer to recover. That is why we are committed to provide the tools and other kinds of support needed to get Dalits back on their feet."

In July, LWF's corrugated iron sheets have arrived in Kusunthali. They will enable the families to build a stronger roof on their temporary shelter.

Livelihood support and psychological counselling will follow soon. With the extra support from LWF Nepal, quake-affected Dalit families stand a chance of rebuilding their lives.

In the immediate response to the 2015 earthquake, LWF Nepal, with the support of ACT Alliance members, supported over 110,000 families with emergency relief.

They are  committed to helping families in five affected districts to rebuild their lives through food security, shelter, water and sanitation and psychological assistance, and link this with long-term development.

Copyright © 2015 Ecumenical News