UN publishes IHEU submissions on Dalit rights and child marriage

  • post Type / Campaigns
  • Date / 23 May 2007

The United Nations Human Rights Council has published two IHEU submissions on Dalit rights and child marriage:

  • Dalits, the Caste System and Human Rights: Broken Lives
  • Child Marriage: A Violation of Human Rights

Both statements are published here together with the official UN versions.

Dalits, the Caste System and Human Rights: Broken Lives

The poor status and treatment of Dalits is one of the most important challenges facing Indian society today. Indeed, along with widespread poverty, hunger and deprivation, the persistence of discrimination against Dalits can fairly be described as one of the most important moral challenges facing not just India, but the world.

The Dalits number well over 250 million worldwide and are known as ‘the broken people’ because they suffer extreme discrimination on the basis of descent and occupation. They constitute 4% of humanity, and are concentrated in Africa and South Asia. In Nigeria there are four million Osu and in Japan there are three million Buraku. However, it is in South Asia that over three quarters of the world’s Dalits live: the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has some 2 million Dalits, Nepal’s 4 million Dalits make up nearly one-fifth of the country’s population and India’s 165 million Dalits form about 16% of her population.

Living on the fringes of human society, the Dalits lead miserable lives, and in the case of the Indian sub continent, are born to perform tasks that are considered taboo by the rest of society. In India, historically, the exclusion of Dalits from human society has been for religious and cultural reasons. Because of the pre-assigned duties of the caste into which they are born, many Dalits are condemned to clean toilets, transport human excreta manually, clear animal carcasses and human remains etc., while others are forced to work in the hazardous leather and tanning industry. Frequently subjected to humiliation, often the victims of rape and enforced prostitution, controlled in parts of the country by caste militias, the Dalits are virtually slaves and hardly in a position to choose a profession of their own choice. For most Dalits, birth is in itself a life sentence as there is hardly any prospect of improvement in social status despite education or a change of profession. At times even a change of religion does not help.

Considered impure and therefore untouchable, even a Dalit’s shadow was considered polluting in the past. Free access to drinking water from sources shared by upper castes is still forbidden in many parts of rural India. Exposure to education is extremely limited, and interaction with other sections of society not easy. Their earnest demands for equality are frequently met with dishonest denial of the problem itself. Faced with untouchability, social exclusion, official apathy or even antagonism from inadequately trained public officials, Dalits are denied the opportunity to participate meaningfully in society, either culturally or economically.

Rarely protected by the police, frequently denied entry into places of worship, succumbing to superstition and far removed from the achievements and benefits of modern civiliation, the Dalits of India are the victims of the Hindu caste system.

Human Rights and the Caste System

Claims of freedom of religion, cultural autonomy or national sovereignty are irrelevant in a discussion about Human Rights abuse that is being carried out in the name of tradition and religion. The right to religious freedom does not confer the right to abuse the rights of others.

The caste system militates against:

Article 1 of the UDHR which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

Article 23 of the UDHR which states: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) defines ‘racial discrimination’ as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life”.

The caste system should be an automatic target for this Convention because the system, despite claims to the contrary by the Indian government, embodies racial discrimination. Indeed, the Aryan term Varna which is used interchangeably with caste literally means colour. The Portuguese who introduced the term caste for Hindu society’s unequal and inflexible hierarchy intended it to demarcate different proportions of racial purity.

Important, but Inadequate Government Efforts

In India where the Dalit problem is at its most severe, there have been many efforts to improve the situation. Indeed, there are many inspiring examples – the father of India’s constitution Dr. Ambedkar was born an untouchable, as was President K.R. Narayanan, a recent Head of State. The current Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan was also born an untouchable. The law criminalises untouchability. Manual scavenging was banned a long time ago. There is an elaborate system of positive discrimination to help the disadvantaged (untouchable or backward) castes obtain seats in educational institutions and jobs in government. Yet discrimination against Dalits continues almost unabated. We recognise the scale of the problem and the fact that the practices are rooted in millennia-old traditions, and that a period of 60 years since independence is not adequate to redress all the historical wrongs. Yet, the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh recently acknowledged in December 2006 the persistence of the problem and termed it a ‘blot on humanity’.

The reason for this is that the fundamental problem – the caste system – is not being addressed. The severe social discrimination that is sustained by the caste system is a form of racism, and no resolution of the problem will be possible simply by criminalising untouchability, (wich, for example the governments of Nigeria and India have both done) without changing social attitudes. It is not sufficient for a government to pass laws and then fail to ensure that they are enforced. The problem can only be solved by dismantling the very caste system itself – the jati-varna system of Hinduism.

A Way Forward

For many, the Dalit problem appears to be intractable, but Human Rights activists and social reformers take courage and hope from the fact that France and Spain had a similar problem of untouchability a few hundred years ago. This was overcome through a combination of legislative measures and social development.

• We suggest that the Government of India take immediate measures to ensure that all laws on the statute book be fully implemented both in letter and in spirit, and appoint a monitoring organisation to examine why, despite the wide-scale abuse of the rights of the Dalits, only a few cases ever get registered and convictions are rare.

It is estimated that there are still 800,000 Dalit women who clean toilets by hand, despite the ban on manual scavenging.

• We suggest that the Government of India immediately sanction adequate funds to replace the dry latrines by those that do not require manual scavenging. If it were not possible for the Government of India to allocate these funds, we request that the funds be allowed to be donated by NGOs and International Aid Agencies abroad.

Families of Dalits are routinely murdered by members of the upper castes, with no credible investigations into the crimes.

• We urge the Government of India to ensure that the law and order system retains its credibility by providing adequate training to the government officers and the police, most of whom are from the upper castes.

Those who have converted from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam do not have the protection of positive discrimination. This forces many families to remain nominally Hindu and continue to silently submit themselves to extreme humiliation.

• We suggest that those Dalits who have converted to other religions be extended the benefit of positive discrimination as their social and economic disability does not disappear automatically with the conversion and the present situation negatively affects their freedom of religion.

The problem of discrimination based on work or descent is not confined to India

• We can applaud the policies and legislation that have been adopted by the Indian government aimed at helping the Dalits. In this context, despite serious disappointment over the lack of progress in the practical implementation of the law, we would suggest that much of the experience gained by the government of India could be applied to assist nations such as Japan and Nigeria where laws are still urgently needed to help address inequality.

India led the moral battle against apartheid in South Africa, following the example of Gandhi, Father of the Nation.

• The Indian government should now take the lead in an all-out battle against this pernicious system rooted as its own culture, religion and tradition.

Finally, we urge the international community to unite – as it did against the apartheid system – in an international campaign against the persistence of caste-based discrimination: what has been described as “the worst system of institutionalized discrimination remaining on earth”.

Child Marriage: A Violation of Human Rights

Child marriage is a violation of human rights. WPF and IHEU therefore urge all governments to end child marriage: a practice in which the parents of a child arrange a marriage with another child or an adult. In most cases young girls get married off to significantly older men when they are still children. Child marriages must be viewed within a context of force and coercion, involving pressure and emotional blackmail, and children that lack the choice or capacity to give their full consent. Child marriage must therefore always be considered forced marriage because valid consent is absent – and often considered unnecessary. Child marriage is common practice in Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Nepal, Uganda and Cameroon, where over 50% of girls are married by the age of 18. More than 30% of girls are married by the age of 18 in another eighteen countries, mostly in Asia and Africa [1]. Poverty, protection of girls, fear of loss of virginity before marriage and related family honour, and the provision of stability during unstable social periods are suggested as significant factors in determining a girl’s risk of becoming married as a child [2]. Statistics show that child marriage is most common among the poorest groups in society [3].

Physical, social and psychological consequences of child marriage

Young girls who get married will most likely be forced into having sexual intercourse with their, usually much older, husbands. This has severe negative health consequences as the girl is often not psychologically, physically and sexually mature. Child brides are likely to become pregnant at an early age and there is a strong correlation between the age of a mother and maternal mortality and morbidity. Girls aged l0-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20-24 and girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die [4]. The body of a young girl is not yet ready for pregnancy and childbirth, which leads to complications such as obstructed labour and obstetric fistula. Obstetric fistula can also be caused by the early sexual relations associated with child marriage, which take place sometimes even before menarche. Good prenatal care reduces the risk of childbirth complications, but in many instances, due to their limited autonomy or freedom of movement, young wives have no access to health services, which aggravates the risks of maternal complications and mortality for pregnant adolescents. Because young girls are not ready for the responsibilities and roles of being a wife, sexual partner and a mother, child marriage has a serious negative impact on their psychological well-being and personal development.

On top of pregnancy-related complications, young married girls are also at high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Girls are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS as compared to boys due to physical and social factors. Young married girls are even at higher risk because their older husbands may already be infected in previous sexual relationships. Furthermore, the age difference between the girl and the husband and her low economic status make it almost impossible for the girl to negotiate safe sex or demand fidelity.

Girls and women who are married younger, especially when married as children, are more likely to experience domestic violence and to believe that it is justified for a man to beat his wife. In addition, child brides are least likely to take action against this abuse [5]. Domestic violence seriously endangers the physical and mental health of women and girls and can even put their lives at risk.

Gender inequality is both a cause as well as a consequence of child marriage. Child brides usually have lower levels of education than girls who get married at an older age. Education is therefore seen as a way to prevent child marriages. Once a girl is married, she experiences a lack of autonomy to make personal decisions about her life. Early marriage, together with its relation to low levels of education, high levels of violence and abuse, severe health risks and harmful power dynamics, results in increased vulnerability to poverty for girls and young women.

Human Rights Violation

Child marriage is a violation of human rights and is prohibited by a number of international conventions and other instruments. Nonetheless, it is estimated that in the next ten years more than 100 million girls are likely to be married before the age of 18 [6].

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that men and women of full age are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending parties.

The Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1964) says that no marriage shall be legally entered into without the full and free consent of both parties. States should specify a minimum age for marriage (not less than 15 years) and all marriages should be registered by the competent authority.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination of Women (1979) states that the betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, should be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory. In their general recommendations of 1994, the Committee considers that the minimum age for marriage should be 18 years for both men and women.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) prohibits child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys. Effective action, including legislation, should be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years.

Concrete Action Points

We call on all governments to take all necessary action to end child marriage by:

• The full implementation of the above mentioned Human Rights Conventions

• Adopting a clear and unambiguous position on child and forced marriages and rectifying the legislative loopholes between religious, customary and civil marriages (Ouagadougou Declaration on Child Marriage, October 2003)

• Introducing laws to raise the legal age of marriage to 18 years, as agreed in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

• Raising the awareness of all stakeholders, including parents, on the negative impacts of child marriage

• Creating safety nets for girls and young women who escape a forced, and often violent, marriage

• Creating and maintaining birth, death and marriage data registries with full national coverage in all countries as recommended in the Pinheiro report on violence against children (2006)

• Promoting and protecting the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women, through legislation, availability of services and information and community outreach

• Promoting gender equality and the right of girls and young women to education

We urge governments to include a strong statement against child marriage in the outcome documents and resolutions of the CSW’s 51st session on ‘The elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child’. We also urge the Commission on the Status of Women to take this statement to the forthcoming review of the Children’s Summit in April 2007.

[1] UNICEF, Early Marriage, a Harmful Traditional Practice. Statistical exploration, 2005
[2] UNICEF, Early Marriage: Child Spouses, 2001
[3] Ibid
[4] UNFPA, Child Marriage Factsheet, 2005
[5] IPPF and the Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls. Ending Child Marriage, A Guide for Global Policy Action, 2006
[6] UNFPA, State of the World Population, 2005

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