A group of representatives from Asia’s caste-affected communities recently gave me a piece of brick from the wall of a torn down latrine. It symbolised the global struggle against the degrading practice of making members of a ‘lower caste’ clean public toilets with their bare hands.
This practice, which persists in many places despite prohibition, is not the workers’ choice. Rather, they inherit such tasks because of their social origins and descent. These discriminated individuals then get trapped in a generational cycle of social exclusion and marginalisation.
Today caste-affected communities and civil society activists are hoping to tear down the bigger invisible wall of discrimination by trying to promote new international standards of equality and non-discrimination. I have tremendous respect for their determination and courage. As a woman of colour from a racial minority growing up in apartheid South Africa , I know a thing or two about discrimination.
‘Untouchability’ is a social phenomenon affecting around 260 million people worldwide. This type of discrimination is usually associated with the notions of ritual purity and pollution and is a global phenomenon. Caste is the very negation of the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination. It condemns individuals from birth and their communities to a life of exploitation, violence and social exclusion.
‘Lower caste’ individuals are frequently confined to hereditary, low-income employment and are deprived access to agricultural land and credit. They often battle high levels of indebtedness — or debt and labour bondage — which is a contemporary form of slavery. Child labour is rampant in descent-based communities and children of ‘lower castes’ suffer from illiteracy. For women, caste is a multiplier that compounds their experience of poverty and discrimination.
Laws and policies have been put in place in many countries to combat this scourge. Constitutions prohibit caste-based discrimination and ‘lower caste’ members have been elected to the highest offices of the land. Special legislation has been enacted to provide affirmative action in education and employment, and protection from violence and exploitation.
Judiciaries have sought to enforce laws and provide relief to victims. Dedicated institutions monitor the conditions and advocate on behalf of ‘lower caste’ groups.
At the international level, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination explicitly lists descent as a ground of racial discrimination. The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted at the World Conference on Racism in 2001, recognised descent-based discrimination. It also provided a comprehensive roadmap to combat it, which was reaffirmed by States in April this year.
Yet, it is imperative to implement education programmes that can change systemic, cultural and social prejudices and customs, beliefs and traditions based on descent, power and affluence. Caste-affected communities must be given a voice and participation in the development, implementation and evaluation of strategies aimed at empowering them.
This action to stem an abhorrent form of marginalisation and exclusion is long overdue. We owe it to those ‘lower-caste’ families, which were forced to leave village because they dared to vote in a parliamentary election against the favoured candidate of the upper caste. We owe it to the villagers belonging to the lowest social class starving to death because they were not able to benefit from the public services that they were entitled to. All caste-victims demand and deserve remedies. Their plight can neither be justified as age-old traditions nor regarded merely as a ‘family business’.
The Human Rights Council — the premier intergovernmental body for the protection and promotion of human rights — should promote the 2009 Draft Principles and Guidelines for the Effective Elimination of Discrimination based on Work and Descent.
This study complements existing international standards of non-discrimination. All nations must rally around and endorse these norms.
The time has come to eradicate the shameful concept of caste. Like slavery and apartheid, the international community should come together to tear down the barriers of caste too.
Navi Pillay is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
The views expressed by the author are personal