Lenin Raghuvanshi: Dalit women are discriminated against even when they die. It's a disgrace
by Lenin Raghuvanshi

A UN study shows that women from India’s disadvantaged castes die on average 14 years before those from top castes. The main causes are poor hygiene, poor access to medical care, and lack of water. The eminent Dalit activist looks at the story of a pregnant 18-year-old woman who was denied a basic right: giving birth to her child in the hospital.

Varanasi (AsiaNews) – Dalit women are the most excluded in the world, subject to triple discrimination: caste, class and gender. For Dalit activist Lenin Raghuvanshi, this is a disgrace. The executive director of the Peoples' Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) in Varanasi spoke to AsiaNews about the latest UN report on the average age of women in the world.

The latter confirms what is already evident in India, namely that women from disadvantaged castes die early. Specifically, Dalit women die 14 years before those from top castes. The main causes are poor hygiene, poor access to medical care, and lack of water. In practice, wealth and place of birth generate great inequalities in India.

Dr Raghuvanshi, a doctor from high caste background, decided to improve the conditions of Dalits. He knows their reality very well because, in India, anti-Dalit discrimination continues despite the abolition of the caste system, especially in regards to women.

"The caste system declares Dalit women to be intrinsically impure and ‘untouchable’, which sanctions social exclusion and exploitation. The vast majority of Dalit women are impoverished; they are landless wage labourers; and they lack access to basic resources. They are subjugated by patriarchal structures, both in the general community and within their own family.

Violence and inhuman treatment, such as sexual assault, rape, and naked parading serve as a social mechanism to maintain Dalit women’s subordinate position in society. They are targeted by dominant castes as a way of humiliating entire Dalit communities. Human rights abuses against Dalit women are mostly committed with impunity.”

For this reason, Raghuvanshi wants to share the story of a young 18-year-old pregnant Dalit woman who was near term. Her story dates back to 2007, but remains topical.

Ms. Rambha Devi (18 years old) is a resident of Rithiya village of Naugarh, Chandauli district. On September 3, 2007, Rambha was in advanced labour and was taken to the Naugarh Primary Health Centre (PHC) by her family. This government centre is the nearest PHC from the village.

When the family arrived at the centre, four staff members at the centre, namely Ms. Savitri, Ms. Lalti Maurya, Ms. Shanti Pandey and Ms. Daai were present. All four are Auxiliary Nursing Mothers (ANM) employed at the centre. Rambha’s family asked the ANMs to admit Rambha for delivery which the ANMs refused. The staff refused to admit Rambha claiming that she would have a stillbirth and that Rambha must be admitted at a private hospital or else she would die. Rambha’s family being poor insisted that Rambha must be admitted at the centre. But the staff named above refused.

Rambha’s family had no other choice but to go to the private hospital in Barahua, where Rambha gave birth to a normal baby. To meet the expenses at the private hospital Rambha had to avail a loan of 7,000 rupees (US$ 178), which the family now found difficult to pay back.

Reportedly, the reason why the staff at the PHC refused to admit Rambha was because they wanted Rambha to go to the private hospital so that the staff at the PHC could get their commission for referring patients to the private hospital. The fact that Rambha belonged to the Dalit community added further complication to Rambha’s case since the Dalits in the villages have less authority. The staff at the PHC adopt the strategy of scaring the patients with wrong opinions without resorting to proper diagnosis so that they rush the patients to private clinics, which the local villagers allege is a very common practice by the staff at the PHC.

The PHC is expected to provide referral service free of cost, especially for the poor, women, and children under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). The case above, demonstrates the neglect and corruption at the primary health centres by the staff like the ANMs. The centres are expected to have qualified doctors, nurses and paramedics like the ANMs, and equipped with enough medical supply and other paraphernalia to provide immediate medical assistance to ordinary people. However, the functioning of several of these centres is deplorable due to government neglect and corruption. This results in the failure of the public health system, which affects the poor, particularly Dalits in the remote villages of India.

Thousands of cases like the above provide factual examples of the deadly dangers Dalit women face, excluded because of caste, class and gender, a triple jeopardy that can cause their death.