Rikke Nöhrlind, Co-ordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN)

on Monday, 04 February 2013. Posted in Discrimination

Rikke Nöhrlind, Co-ordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN)

Rikke Nöhrlind is the Co-ordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN). She holds a Master’s degree in African (Development) Studies and has worked with the United Nations organisations and international NGOs, including as coordinator of programmes in Southern Africa and as human rights coordinator in DanChurchAid.  She has extensive experience in the field of development, human rights and transnational advocacy. She has been engaged in global advocacy for Dalit rights since 1999 and was appointed coordinator when IDSN was established as an international organisation in 2003.

The International Dalit Solidarity Network - a network of international organisations, national advocacy platforms in caste-affected countries and national solidarity groups - works on a global level to eradicate caste discrimination. Over the last decade, IDSN has played a pivotal role in raising awareness about caste discrimination internationally and is a key stakeholder in transnational advocacy for its elimination.  IDSN works with United Nations Human Rights bodies, European Union institutions, and governments advocating for Dalit rights, and facilitates interventions of Dalit human rights defenders. 


Interview with Rikke Nöhrlind 

What is caste discrimination and how prevalent is this issue globally? 

Caste discrimination is a form of discrimination based on hierarchical caste systems. Those born into the ‘lowest castes’, known across South Asia as Dalits, are treated as subhuman and ‘untouchable’, and members of other castes consider them impure and polluted.  Caste discrimination is based on a doctrine of inequality and involves massive violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Dalits face discrimination in all spheres of life, and ‘untouchability practices’ include segregation in housing and eating arrangements, de facto prohibition on entry to public places and discrimination in schools, and social prohibition on intermarriage among castes. As a result of social exclusion, Dalits and in particular Dalit women, have limited access to basic services and resources, employment, and political and economic participation. 

Caste discrimination affects an estimated 260 million people worldwide, particularly in South Asia, but also in diaspora communities, Japan, Yemen and a number of African countries.  Subject to social exclusion, exploitation and inequalities, the majority of Dalits in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, live in poverty. In spite of affirmative action programs in some countries, Dalits still have limited or severely restricted access to water, land, education and health care. Human rights abuses against them are typically committed with impunity and where special legislation exists, implementation is weak. Dalit women are especially vulnerable to rape, sexual exploitation and humiliation, as well as social exclusion and poverty due to the intersection between gender and caste.

It is a fact that a large number of Dalits in South Asia suffer violence, rape, public humiliation and even murder often without being able to gain justice through the police and courts. Millions of Dalits are also subjected to forced or bonded labour, forced prostitution and other forms of exploitation, such as the inhuman and illegal practice of manual scavenging (removing human waste with bare hands).  It is part of the caste system to force Dalits to work in degrading conditions and for upper-caste community members to take advantage of their ‘privileged position’, which in most cases amount to committing criminal offences.

What are the causes for caste discrimination?

Caste discrimination, also known in the UN terminology as discrimination based on work and descent, is typically associated with the notion of purity and pollution and hundreds of untouchability practices, deeply rooted in societies and cultures where it is practiced.

The caste system in South Asia has its roots in Hinduism, but caste-based discrimination is also practiced within non-Hindu communities. Caste systems are hereditary and hierarchic systems of social groupings distinguished by degrees of purity, social status, and exclusion. Those belonging to the lowest caste are considered ‘impure’ by other caste groups, have more ‘obligations to serve’ and ‘less privileges’ than those above them. They are socially excluded and often forced to take on certain types of work. Dalits in South Asia are ‘outcastes’ or people who fall outside the four-fold varna caste system consisting of the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra.

The caste system has been termed the “longest surviving social hierarchy in the world”. In South Asia 3000 years of prejudices, prohibitions and prescriptions on social order have determined people’s lives and opportunities - inevitably leading to structural inequality permeating also modern societies. For Dalits it has meant lives denied dignity.

On whom does caste discrimination most impact and what is the nature of its impact?

Dalit women are particularly vulnerable as they face multiple and severe forms of discrimination based on both caste and gender. They suffer physical assaults and rape or are forced into sex work and other forms of exploitation. The wwidespread violence committed against Dalit women include sexual violence committed by men of dominant castes, with high level of impunity for such perpetrators. Violence against and humiliation of Dalit women are frequently used as a means of subjugating the Dalit community as a whole by the dominant castes. The vast majority of Dalit women are poor; they are landless wage laborers; and lack access to basic resources. They continue to subjugated by patriarchal structures, both in the general community and within their own family.

Also within Dalit communities, internal discrimination takes place between the ‘sub-caste groups’ according to the same ‘logic’. Some communities, like the “Rat Eaters” or Valmiki (manual scavenging) ‘sub-castes’ in India, are at the very bottom, trapped in poverty and despised by fellow citizens.

How effective are global campaigns in addressing caste discrimination?

Global campaigns to address caste discrimination have been efficient in many respects. Multiple efforts by a range of actors, stretching from grass root level to the international arena have ensured that caste discrimination is now recognised as a global human rights issue, and no longer is hidden away or deemed ‘a cultural phenomenon’.  Extensive documentation on the nature and consequences of this form of discrimination has produced evidence, analyses and recommendations noted by a wide range of UN human rights bodies. Joint campaigns and long term consistent lobby efforts have underpinned and supported the human rights claims and policy demands put forward by affected communities and their organisations.  It has contributed to effectuating change in some countries and generated a high level of interest among key stakeholders such as the High Commissioner for Human Rights and her office. Global advocacy has helped sensitize national, bilateral and multilateral stakeholders towards improved policies and action to address caste discrimination. It has created a political awareness that has turned into action by parliamentarians, resulting for example in resolutions on the topic by the European Parliament, or in debates in national parliaments. Politically, the issue is well known now for its “sensitivity” and notorious ability to disturb diplomatic relations. The potential for efficient change and for the introduction of a UN monitoring framework on caste discrimination - sooner rather than later - is undermined by the position held by the Government of India internationally.

It is also evident that new economic and political power equations have a direct impact on human rights leverage. States previously known for their commitment to raise concerns on gross human rights violations irrespective of power and spheres of influence now bend towards powerful states, such as India. This new scenario has implications for global campaigning to end caste discrimination, but it could also potentially undermine many other global human rights campaigns.

In which countries is caste discrimination illegal? Are there other international avenues of recourse for victims of caste discrimination if their home country fails to uphold national laws against this injustice?

India and Nepal have special legislation that outlaws caste discrimination and untouchability. In India, for example, the body of legislation meant to protect Dalits and improve their situation is extensive. In Nepal, a Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability Bill was adopted in May 2011. Other countries, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have provisions in their Constitutions prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of caste or have generally declared equal rights for all citizens. 

However, enforcement mechanisms are weak, insufficient or failing, and the political will to ensure implementation is often lacking; thus discrimination from village level up to government level continues - unabated - in most caste-affected countries. Progress has been made toward making access to justice for Dalits in Nepal, and potentially so in Bangladesh, however, such progress can easily be comprised in the context of insufficient justice regimes or even deteriorating rule of law. In other countries, such as the UK, Pakistan and Yemen, civil society continues to call for national legislation to address caste discrimination, in some cases backed by politicians.

Recourse to justice can be sought when national level remedies have been extinct or whenever it is deemed necessary to bring cases of gross human rights violations to the attention of UN human rights bodies. This has been a strategy widely used by Dalit organizations, and other affected communities, often supported by IDSN through joint submissions and lobbying for effective outcomes.

How is the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) working to ensure that national governing bodies recognise caste discrimination as illegal and implement consequences for its occurrence?

IDSN supports its members in bringing evidence of human rights violations related to caste discrimination to the attention of relevant UN bodies - in efforts to keep their government accountable to their international human rights commitments (being party to conventions) and the countries’ own legislation.  Through highlighting key issues and recommendations shaped by Dalit human rights defenders, IDSN helps get messages out to governments in international fora, as well as to bilateral and multilateral agencies.  In turn this strengthens the possibility that these stakeholders include the topic of caste discrimination in dialogues with Governments of affected countries and critically review their own and the governments’ human rights, development and CSR policies in respect of reaching out to the Dalits through official assistance. Results of interactive dialogues at the UN and recommendations of the UN system are also brought to bear at the country level, primarily by national Dalit organisations. Also the expertise of UN agencies, in particular that of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has contributed to enabling processes and a continued pressure for ensuring Dalit rights. 

On occasion, IDSN and members contributes to national, regional or international events in affected countries which involve government officials and senior level politicians.  Joint messages and declarations from international consultations on the topic have also been used to lobby governments.  Finally raising awareness and promoting political statements of concerns on caste discrimination, as has been the case with European Parliament, is a means to enhance affected governments’ attention to the issues and concerns raised.

Can you please share some reflections on your journey that led to you working in this field and the challenges and highlights of your involvement?

I had worked closely with organizations in the apartheid movement in South Africa for almost 10 years, when I was tasked by the organization I worked for then (in 1999) with exploring possibilities of raising the issue of caste discrimination internationally.  At the time, this was not an issue dealt with by the UN human rights bodies, and there was little awareness of the topic outside NGO circles working on rights and development in India.

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights had formed in 1998 in India, calling for national action and internationalization of the issue under the slogan “Dalit rights are human rights”.  Progressively we got key people and organizations into the idea of working jointly to address the UN strategically and formed IDSN, first as an informal network in March2000, and in 2003 as an international organization.   

It has been an amazing journey, borne by a sense of urgency by everyone involved coupled with a strong commitment.  Over the years, IDSN has grown as a network and in outreach and tasks have many-doubled.  We have experienced the strength of networking and collective interventions, which continues to be inspirational and highly motivating. And which at times has been challenging, too.

There have been highlights; many “first times” celebrated; and also many stalemates and closed doors counting on the low side. When the first resolution related to caste discrimination was adopted by the then UN Commission on Human Rights (this was in 2005), I was in the plenary room with friends from India, who had fought so hard for this to come through. It was a deeply touching moment; finally recognition was given to caste discrimination as a human rights issue which needed to be studied by the UN.

The personal commitment by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navy Pillay to ‘end caste discrimination’ has been a great encouragement to IDSN and the Dalit movement at large. The High Commissioner has on several occasions issued powerful statements on caste discrimination, on the need to ‘tear down the walls of caste’ and called for a UN framework for the elimination of caste discrimination. 

However, I’m deeply concerned by the repercussions by ‘strong states’ on civil society organizations, governments and also institutions, which raise their legitimate concerns on caste related human rights violations.  It takes courage and a strong human rights commitment to deal with the “sensitive Dalit issue”.

Reflecting on where we were, when we started and where we are now, we see a remarkable difference.  The level of awareness and international attention has increased dramatically, and many more institutions are now working to address the issue compared to ten years ago.

We have seen a change in attitudes and understanding of the extent and consequences of this human rights and poverty problem; and there’s been real progress in lawmaking and policy inclusion for Dalits in several countries brought about by persistent work of Dalit organizations. 

However, appalling reports continue to tick in, exposing the dehumanizing brutality of caste discrimination and caste related violence.  It’s incomprehensible!   - And I fail to understand why this enormous rights problem is not getting the same level of attention and support as the struggle against apartheid did.

At the end of the day, the thing that matters is change on the ground, real change in people’s lives.  We have seen that happen, too, and this is incredibly rewarding, but there is so much more to be done! 

Quote from opinion piece issued on 8 October 2009 by

UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay: 

“The time has come to eradicate the shameful concept of caste. Other seemingly insurmountable walls, such as slavery and apartheid, have been dismantled in the past. We can and must tear down the barriers of caste too”

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Opinion Piece)