Caste Equality Project
Launching Summer 2022
NYF’s long-term Caste Equality Project is our most ambitious and daring undertaking yet. Our goal is to empower Nepali Dalit communities to access the opportunities and resources they need to build towards the futures they envision for themselves and their children.
Like our Empowering Freed Kamlaris program of 2000-2020, we expect this work to take a generation or more. Our full Caste Equality Project will combine lessons learned across our organization’s 30+ year history, providing on-the-ground interventions in Dalit communities who have endured the worst oppressions of all.
The challenges confronted by Nepal’s Dalit communities are complex and tightly woven with every aspect of life, from pre-natal care to early nutrition to educational opportunities to childhood friendships to housing stability and onward.
The Caste Equality Project will eventually include:
- nutritional education and home health resources for mothers,
- scholarships for all ages,
- school improvement projects,
- psychological counseling for children and adults,
- vocational training for youth to begin neighborhood improvement projects,
- and so much more.
All the while, we’ll be encouraging change at higher levels in Nepal—first by championing human rights lawyers from the Dalit community in Phase 1, and developing further interventions in partnership with allies within the Dalit Rights community.
What We’re Doing
Stay tuned—we’ll be updating this page as this program develops!
Phase 1: Educating Dalit Lawyers (launching Summer 2022)
Educating Dalit Lawyers (or EDL) is an enriched law school scholarship program designed especially for graduating high schoolers from Nepal’s Dalit community, formerly known as the “untouchable” castes. These young people are hoping to become human rights lawyers who will eventually fight for the rights of Dalits in Nepal’s courts. Learn more here.
Casteism in Nepal
Like other entrenched systems of oppression throughout the world, Nepal’s caste system has a complex history.
For many centuries, changing political regimes worked to unify the Himalayan civilizations that would eventually become the Nepal we know today. A strict social hierarchy developed across this diverse population, rooted in the spiritual practices of Hinduism.
This “caste system” ranked families, ethnic groups, and communities based on their occupations, and strict laws solidified and enforced this oppressive social order. A person’s caste was—and still is—permanent.
Dalits are in the lowest of these castes and make up over 13% of Nepal’s population—around 4 million individuals. At least 42% of Nepal’s Dalits (over double the national average) live below the country’s poverty line of only $166 per year.
Caste-based discrimination was formally outlawed in Nepal in 1963 (with renewed commitment from parliament in 2006), but due to structural inequality, historical oppression, widespread tradition, and cultural bias, Dalits in Nepal face social, economic, cultural, religious, and political marginalization. Hate crimes and acts of violence often go unprosecuted, and many in these communities experience severe limitations in educational access, employment, housing opportunities, and health care.
Discrimination is worst in rural regions, but even in Nepal’s urban areas, where the culture has changed more rapidly towards a more merit-based model, stories still abound of shocking injustices experienced by those born into Dalit families.
The Dalit Rights Movement
Since at least the mid-1800s, social reformers in India and Nepal have become increasingly vocal against casteist injustice. Many in the United States and other Western countries will most quickly recognize the name Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)—a lawyer known for nonviolent civil rights activism and the Indian fight against British colonial rule, and for inspiring activists worldwide, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. One of Gandhi’s major goals was the eradication of untouchability, which he called a great evil. (Gandhi’s efforts were not universally embraced in the Dalit rights community. Like any social movement confronting complex systems of oppression, the process of dismantling casteism is complicated, both within the movement and outside of it. Learn more here.)
Legal protections, justice, and progress towards equality for Dalits have been hard-won, with the journeys of these movements differing in each country and each community impacted by casteism. Most information available to Westerners about the caste system is specific to India, as most of the world’s Dalits live there. However, many of the issues facing Nepali Dalits are distinct. At NYF, we’re grateful to have our all-Nepali team to guide our efforts!
The COVID-19 pandemic has made social injustices more starkly visible across the world, and social media has given communities a stronger ability to organize themselves—especially younger generations. Young Dalits are pushing back, inspired in part by the American #BlackLivesMatter protests in the summer of 2020 and beyond.
This “Dalit Lives Matter” movement has seen advocacy initiatives gain strength in both India and Nepal, with court cases involving violence against Dalits receiving unprecedented national attention.
Many of the most successful court cases are presented by lawyers who are themselves members of the Dalit castes—lawyers who personally understand the experiences of their clients, and are prepared to argue their cases with devastating precision and clarity. But in Nepal today, only about 200 Dalit lawyers exist. That’s only 0.001% of the Dalit community. Of the judges serving in Nepal, only .01% are Dalit. Dalits are drastically underrepresented at all levels of Nepal’s government.
Now, with young Dalits across Nepal uniting to push back against systemic oppression, the stage is set for unprecedented social transformation—and NYF is perfectly positioned to support the work of these impassioned young activists.
As always, NYF is developing this project in partnership with local grassroots NGOs, Dalit rights advocates, and community members—a proven approach for ensuring far-reaching, sustainable social change.
Here are a few of the partners helping to ensure we work as effectively as possible:
- Dignity Initiative is a Dalit-led NGO based in Kathmandu, advocating for the rights of the Dalit community through research, activism, policy advocacy, youth empowerment as well as critical engagement in public debate. They are partnering with NYF on Phase 1: Educating Dalit Lawyers. Learn more by visiting our Phase 1 program page!
New partners will be added to this page as the Caste Equality Project grows.
The Dalit Rights Movement and the push against casteism have been in the news frequently in Nepal recently. If you’d like to learn more, here is some coverage written by Nepalis and published in English.
Himalayan Times, June 5th, 2022, “Caste Discrimination Still Entrenched,” by Ram Kumar Kamat – an overview of casteist discrimination and the ways law enforcement is failing to protect Dalits.
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