When I signed onto this fellowship in early April, I made a commitment to put my best effort forth to help tell a little-known story of severe disempowerment. I knew I was entering an environment encompassing an acute degree of complexity of which I had virtually no practical, concrete understanding. Even more so, I anticipated frequent instances of feeling at a loss for words after hearing firsthand accounts of great struggle, compassion, resilience, and vitality in the people with whom I’d interact. All of the above have been richly solidified.
However, the real loss for words hits me when I attempt to wrap my brain around the word “disempowerment” and relate it to the caste system in Nepal. At first I thought “dehumanization” to be a better descriptor of the repressive edifice I am only beginning to comprehend, but even now I harbor doubts that finding an adequately substantive label is even possible. How does one go about defining the blatant, systematic denial of an entire demographic group’s very humanity?
Sure, the legacy of human-against-human atrocity is nothing new to the world. As I mentioned in my initial blog entry, discrimination appears to be a timeless and universal human value. As an American, I am all too familiar with the remnants and consequences of my country’s own sordid past with racism and sexism that continue to hover. Even as my country celebrated its independence this weekend and the societal progress it has made thus far, most (I hope) of us remain disgruntled at the rampant divisiveness and institutional oppression that persist, deeply embedded in our social fabric. We may boast forward-looking steps in the likes of statistics, legislation, and fiscal policy; but what catalyzes true progress is a change in mindset, which we’ve had more trouble with. As long as we harbor harmful, demeaning prejudices (of which we are all undeniably guilty on some level, conscious or not) and add insult to injury, we indirectly contribute to the gravest forms of global disempowerment.
In Nepal, such disempowerment manifests itself in an unprecedented level of shame and insult inherent in the nature of abuses against Dalits. Atrocities against this vibrant community are not only committed to injure, weaken, or threaten; they are committed to humiliate and dehumanize. A young Dalit schoolboy was recently forced by his teacher to eat his own excrement as “punishment” for some unidentified classroom misdeed he allegedly committed. In many rural villages in Nepal (which cover around 80% of the country’s terrain), Dalit women are blamed for various random mishaps – such as a bad rainstorm or the death of a goat – and are then accused of witchcraft. In most instances of such accusation, a woman is brutally beaten, tortured to a deadly degree, and again forced to eat excrement until she admits to being a “witch”. Dalits in villages face violent consequences if they dare touch a water pump used by other castes. Countless stories such as these abound among Dalits – countless instances of being branded a witch, a contaminator, a slave…anything but a human being.
Coming to Nepal as a Westerner, I must take extra care in my words, actions, and mannerisms to distance myself as much as possible from inextricable links to imperialism and conquest. I tread lightly in a place where so much arrogance, negativity, and disgust is rightly associated even with Western volunteers. Cognizant of these links and the politics of identity, I feel especially grateful to be embraced and welcomed in this Dalit-run organization by such warm people who have suffered so under the hands of privilege and its many injustices. My gratitude is already at an astronomical level for the chance to live in Nepal this summer – but has increased tenfold as a result of the delicate congeniality and kindness I’ve received here.
Socially-constructed divisions may be universal, but perhaps they are not an eternal curse on the world. I like to believe that deep down, human beings are resilient, open-minded, inclined to evolve, and capable of reaching profound social and behavioral progress in our relations with one another. Perhaps the Dalits of Nepal are the best example of said resilience and propensity for achieving real social change.
Posted By Jessica Tirado
Posted Jul 7th, 2009