Stacey Spivey (Nepal)

Stacey Spivey (Jagaran Media Center – JMC - Nepal): Stacey graduated summa cum laude from Tulane University in 2000 with a BA in Political Science. She later worked as a Research Assistant at the Health Privacy Project. Stacey served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, where she taught English in a local school for 2 years. In 2005, Stacey joined The Advocacy Project as a Grant Researcher. At the time of her fellowship, she was pursuing a Master’s degree in International Affairs at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, with a concentration in International Development.

Ignorance is not bliss

27 Jul

Yesterday I met a French woman who has been working and living in Nepal for over a year, and when I mentioned I am here working at a Dalit NGO, her response was a blank stare. As I elaborated on who the Dalit are, she eventually nodded as though she understood, yet I had a sneaking suspicion she agreed out of embarrassment rather than true understanding.

I was a bit appalled that someone who has been here for so long could be so oblivious to the underlying dynamics of caste that shape Nepalese society. This woman was no mere tourist–she was an educated woman who speaks several languages, has lived in Nepal for a year, and probably deserves considerable credit for living in Nepal at a time when most Westerners are staying away.

Where is the disconnect and what is causing this huge gap in information? Can this woman be blamed for her ignorance, or is there a larger failure here? Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered such naivete when speaking with foreigners about my work here.In fact, I have been quite surprised to find that many foreigners here seem to have little to no idea about the Dalit, or the issues of widespread discrimination in Nepal. As the Dalit comprise around 20% of the Nepalese population, it would seem that issues of caste-based discrimination would be hard to miss in such a small country, but apparently this is not the case.

Perhaps ignorance among foreigners is a result of the pernicious nature of the caste system, which might not be readily apparent to outsiders. Caste is not based on any physical characteristics, such as race or color, although it is hereditary. Occupation used to be an indicator of caste, but in today’s world the lines are no longer quite so clear, especially in cities where more mobility is possible. In fact, without any definitive, outward signs, the only foolproof evidence of a person’s status in the caste hierarchy is last name.

Even while working for a Dalit NGO and continuously surrounded by talk of the caste system, I myself have no idea what caste a person belongs to unless they tell me. As I travel around Kathmandu, I often burn with curiousity, wondering who belongs to what caste and how their status shapes their daily lives. “Are those people sweeping the streets because they are Dalit? Or are they just pleased to be employed? Hmmm. Do they get paid to sweep the streets? And what about the shoe shiners? Or the beggars?” As Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, its easy to look around and see extreme destitution and hardship, without being able to distinguish who might be the absolute poorest or the most excluded.

As a result, it’s easy to imagine that people could visit Nepal and, unless they have previous knowledge of the caste system, be unaware of the hierarchy that dominates the society around them. They could, for example, be unaware of how the Dalit are frequent victims of violence and rape, or how they are often prevented from using public water wells, entering temples, renting apartments or obtaining decent employment. Yet, how is it that people arrive in Nepal with such little understanding of the caste system? Is the “hidden” nature of caste reason enough for ignorance?

To be fair, it should also be acknowledged that, with respect to Nepal, international media have been focused on recent democracy protests and the effort to reinstate an elected government. As a result, the Dalit movement has been lost in the shuffle, with few people taking note of or understanding caste problems. But is this acceptable? It seems that discussions of democracy should go hand in hand with talk of equality and inclusion, and hence the Dalit. Yet, this has not been the case.

I’m not sure what to think of people in Nepal who know so little about the inequalities of the society that surrounds them. I’m not sure who is responsible, but I can’t stop myself from seeking to place blame somewhere. Is it the media’s fault? Or Nepalese people? Maybe my Lonely Planet guidebook? Or is it the people themselves, who have not educated themselves on these issues? There is no easy answer, yet it is clear that when caste has such a heartrending and negative impact on the lives of millions of people, complacency and ignorance are not okay. Something has to change.

Posted By Stacey Spivey (Nepal)

Posted Jul 27th, 2006

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