A new UN report reveals that a woman’s life-span is directly affected by her caste, with the average Dalit woman dying 14.6 years earlier than the average upper-caste woman. Released on Valentine’s Day, the report was created towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for women, such as an end to poverty and hunger, providing access to healthcare, education, clean water, and sanitation, by 2030.
The report establish the fact that the experiences of women in a patriarchal world are determined by more than just their gender, and the reasons for this disparity are before our very eyes. As the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies notes, privilege plays a huge roll in mortality. Because of the unequal distribution of resources, people from schedule castes are left with the poorest quality of life, lacking basic needs like toilets, medicines, food, having to drink unclean water, and make do with inadequate housing or a lack thereof.
Conditions like these are enough to drive a person to an early grave. But it isn’t just caste which determines who lives and who dies. It is society’s compliance with the rules of caste, that actively denies equal rights to all, or passively ignores the injustice. For women, caste and patriarchy form a two-pronged attack on their right to dignity, to equality, to life. The book “Dalit Women Speak Out” talks of how son-preference is as prevalent among Dalit people as it is anywhere else in India. Daughters are seen as ‘burdens’ (especially financially) by even well-to-do families, imagine how much more pronounced this is in poverty-stricken homes.
Those of us who insist that caste no longer exists in India need only look at recent events like the ‘institutional murder’ of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit uprising in Una (where Dalits refused to work as manual scavengers), and the violent clashes in Bhima-Koregaon. But before that, we must acknowledge that. even in its most innocuous forms, caste is still a matter of life and death. The UN report proves this without a shadow of a doubt.
Now with the knowledge of this disparity, we could use a rather aggressive approach to balancing the power equation between Dalit and savarna women. In fact, focusing on ways to improve life-expectancy among Dalit women may also shatter some of the binds of Brahmanical patriarchy. Similarly, it is important that savarna women acknowledge their life-expectancy as a privilege, examine their own position in the caste system, and act accordingly. Tackling this challenge head-on would certainly help build better solidarities between women of different communities. And then perhaps we will be all the more ready to achieve those 2030 goals.