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‘We Are the Same Blood’: The Invisible Lives of India’s Dalit Women

Caste-based discrimination is illegal in India, but members of the Dalit community are often still treated as ‘untouchables.’ Documenting the lives of Dalits across South Asia, photojournalist Sara Hylton meets women who endure daily humiliations with dignity.

Written by Sara Hylton Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Two girls stand outside their home in Harijan Mahala, the Dalit colony in Satbarwa, Jharkhand state in eastern India. Dalits of this village say they experience discrimination and abuse at the hands of the authorities and upper caste villagers. Sara Hylton

SATBARWA, INDIA – Panpati, 60, suffers from severe malnutrition. She says that, because she is a member of India’s Dalit caste, the village chief gives her only a portion of the monthly rice allowance that the government allocates to the poorest families in Jharkhand. “We are facing discrimination,” she says. “We are getting only 9 kilograms (20 pounds) of rice per month while other [castes] are getting 30 kilograms (65 pounds). The poor people will die. The authorities want to kill us off by starving us.”

Many women suffer from anemia due to malnutrition in Harijan Mahala, the colony in Satbarwa, Jharkhand state, where Panpati and other Dalits live segregated from other castes.

Mahatma Gandhi referred to them as “Harijans” or “Children of God,” but Dalits have traditionally been viewed within India’s caste system as “untouchables” and have long suffered discrimination and abuse. Although the practice of “untouchability” was abolished under India’s constitution in 1950, it is still rife. Dalits remain among the country’s most impoverished and exploited people.

In many parts of the country, Dalits continue to exist in a system of modern-day slavery and bonded labor, performing degrading tasks such as manual scavenging, removing dead animal carcasses or cleaning the streets. They also face ostracism and humiliation from members of upper castes. “They don’t allow us to enter any house, and we are not allowed to sit [with them],” says Rubymalik, a 16-year-old girl from Bihar who now lives across the border in Barmajhiya, Nepal. “We are the same, we are all human beings, we are the same blood. So when the upper caste dominates, it feels bad.”

The combination of low social status and gender makes Dalit women one of the most vulnerable groups in Indian society. According to Human Rights Watch, there are nearly 100 million Dalit women living in India, and the National Crime Records Bureau has found that four are raped every day.

A journey across South Asia to document the lives of Dalit women captures a range of circumstances, simple joys and almost daily heartbreak – united by unwavering resilience and dignity.

Hasina, 63, says even before her husband went blind, she did all the work to support the family. (Sara Hylton)

“Whether he is blind or not, I still have to do all the work,” Hasina, 63, says of her husband. Hasina and her family are Muslims living among Hindu Dalits in Panipat, Haryana, a village located directly next to the highway. Hasina’s husband lost his sight due to old age. She says his anger and aggression has increased since he went blind.

Megha Kumari, 9, suffers seizures due to malnutrition. (Sara Hylton)

Megha Kumari, 9, is massaged by her mother and other villagers after she lost feeling in her legs following a seizure. Households in the village of Harijan Mahala in Jharkhand do not receive their full rations of rice due to discrimination, villagers say. Most households in the village have at least one female family member who suffers from anemia, which leads to a range of medical complications.

Nanpatiya Kumar lost her husband three years ago. “If my husband would have been here, I wouldn’t worry so much,” she says. (Sara Hylton)

Nanpatiya Kumar, 41, plays with Jyoti, her neighbor’s baby, in the village of Kolodohar, Jharkhand state. Nanpatiya lost her husband three years ago when he succumbed to a long-term respiratory illness. She couldn’t afford a doctor to help him. “If my husband had been here, I wouldn’t worry so much,” says Kumar, who has five children. “Now I worry about the kids all the time. How will I get them married?” In Kolodohar, even women who haven’t lost their husbands often find themselves caring for their families alone, as many men have migrated to other states for work.

The Mahanadi riverbed, during the dry season, when women have to travel for hours to find water. (Sara Hylton)

A girl from the Dalit village of Harirajpur, in Odisha, chases a kite on the dried-up Mahanadi riverbed. This is the primary source of water for many villagers, who, living in one of India’s poorest states, bear the brunt of the dry season by having to walk long distances to retrieve drinking water.

Taramalik and her husband Surajmalik, who live in Nepal, were married when she was 4 and he was 7. (Sara Hylton)

Though the caste system originated in India, it has spread across South Asia affecting the lives of millions who remain “untouchables.” Taramalik, 22, her husband Surajmalik, 25, and their children live in Bhokraha, Nepal. Taramalik and Surajmalik were both born into a pig farming sub-caste of Dalits named “Doom,” and were married when they were just four and seven, respectively. Taramalik is originally from Bihar, India, and like many others of her caste, she crossed the border into Nepal because of her arranged marriage.

After escaping her abusive husband, Darshani turned to farming to build a life for herself and her two children. (Sara Hylton)

Darshani, 41, prays in her home in Bhapur, in India’s Haryana state. “I bought the gold I wear for myself … and I own this house,” she says. After two years of physical abuse by her alcoholic husband, Darshani left for her mother’s village, took out a loan and did agricultural work to build her own life and raise her two children. Thirteen years on, her husband has pleaded for forgiveness, sobered up and now supports their children as they strive for a better future.

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights helped facilitate access for this story.

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