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...for her commitment over decades to achieving equality for Dalit women, building effective and committed women's organisations and working for their rights at national and international levels.
Ruth Manorama is India's most effective organiser of and advocate for Dalit women, belonging to the 'scheduled castes' sometimes also called 'untouchables'.
Dr. Ruth Manorama
84/2, 2nd Cross, 8th Main Road
3rd Block, Jaya Nagar East
Fax: +91 80 2663 0262
Website of NAWO
Dalit women in India suffer from three oppressions: gender, as a result of patriarchy; class, from being from the poorest and most marginalised communities; and caste, from coming from the lowest caste, the 'untouchables'. Although discrimination on the basis of caste is against the Indian constitution and prohibited by many laws, its practice is still widespread, especially in rural India.
Ruth Manorama is a Dalit woman. Born in 1952 in Madras, her parents escaped the worst consequences of being Dalits by becoming Christians. In 1975 Manorama took a Master's degree in social work from the University of Madras and has trained in both the community organisation methods of Saul D'Alinsky and the conscientisation methods of Paolo Freire. In 2001 Manorama was granted an honorary doctorate "for the distinguished contribution made to church and society" by the Academy of Ecumenical Indian Theology and Church Administration.
Manorama has been consistently associated with a range of issues - the rights of slumdwellers, domestic workers, unorganised labour and Dalits, and the empowerment of marginalised women. She stresses the interconnectedness between these issues, and the common cause that marginalised people share the world over. Her work crosses the borders between grassroots movements, mass mobilisation, and international movements.
Manorama's working life has been spent on organisation building, mobilisation of people and advocacy on behalf of Dalit women through a large number of organisations. She is:
In addition, she has a number of regional and international roles (Asian Women's Human Rights Council, International Women's Rights Action Watch - Asia - Pacific, Sisters' Network).
She has also been a member of the Karnataka State Planning Board, the State Commission for Women, the Task Force on Women's Empowerment of the Government of India and a number of other state and national bodies.
Manorama's work in these different roles consists of organising and educating people, and speaking on behalf of the marginalised. She travels all over India, co-ordinating their efforts, lobbying and advocating, and building alliances between movements.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Manorama was at the forefront of mass struggles against eviction and the 'Operation Demolition' by the State Government of Karnataka. She led mass processions of 150,000 people along with other activists, demanding the protection of the roofs over their heads, a fair deal of security and safety and allowing them to live legally and with dignity. On behalf of the Slum dwellers, Manorama was involved in legal cases at the High Court as well as the Supreme Court of India. Since then, she has been working with the urban poor protecting and voicing their rights.
Manorama has been involved in Women's Voice and mobilised the women at the grass-root levels since the 1980s. She has been consistently urging the Indian Government for pro-poor policies like providing infrastructure and basic amenities to the poorer women who are living in slums. In more than 120 slums, women are now mobilised, trained and capacitated to face the issues on their own and take leadership in their communities as well as in society. Women are also trained to protect their rights against violence, discrimination and deprivation.
Looking at the deplorable conditions of the Dalits, Manorama felt it is necessary to work with the Human Rights organisations to advance the emancipation of Dalits. She has participated in several struggles against human rights violations, for land rights and for the cause of Dalit women. The Dalit women in the rural areas as well as in the slums suffer unique violence and discrimination. This led Manorama to form a special platform to address their concerns. In 1995, the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW) was established as a platform for Dalit women. It allows them to articulate the social ostracism and exclusion, powerlessness and poverty, violence and discrimination, which they daily experience. The work of the NFDW has had effect: Today, the Dalit women are recognised in the movements as leaders, Dalit women are able to organise themselves autonomously and independently, and they now demand a National Perspective Plan to be created for Dalit Women in India.
With consistent effort, Manorama has built an organisation for the women workers, unionised them, and struggled to provide minimum wages. She serves as one of the Secretaries of the National Centre for Labour (NCL), which has brought the issues of the informal sector of labour to people's attention and lobbied for a Comprehensive Welfare Bill and social security measures.
Through her expertise on the International Human Rights Treaties (such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention to Eliminate Racial Discrimination) Manorama has exposed violence and gender discrimination faced by Dalit women at various platforms including the UN committees. The concerned committees recommended that the Government of India take appropriate and suitable action to eliminate this discrimination.
Manorama has several times held public hearings to monitor human rights violations and demand accountability from the Government. Manorama articulated issues of discrimination against Dalits and Dalit women particularly at the International UN Conferences, e.g. in Beijing and Durban.
December 8th, 2006
Being a Dalit myself and representing the marginalized, indigenous people of India, identified during the British rule as "depressed classes" and now known as Dalits, I am privileged and honoured to accept this prestigious award.
I should emphasize that this award given to me is indeed a fitting recognition of the future empowerment in the social, economic and political life in India for the Dalit community and in particular the Dalit women.
By recognizing me you have recognized the ongoing struggles of the Dalits and Dalit Women, who have taken a big and bold step to move from the 'margins' to the 'centre'. The award opens up new avenues and visibility globally to the aspirations of women of the Dalit community, who may be the most evident example of marginalization standing at the bottom of the social hierarchy of the Indian society.
On this momentous occasion, I must mention that Sisters in the women's movement, comrades of the Dalit movement, human rights advocates and numerous social movements in India as well as abroad have felt proud and jubilant by the award.
Particularly the mass organizations which I represent in Bangalore, women in the slums, the urban poor, and the unorganized sector of labour felt very happy by the prize. It also created a lot of interest in the civil society, academic institutions, development agencies and the media.
I dedicate this award to the 200 million Dalit people through out the length and breadth of India who are involved in this historical struggle for rights and freedoms.
It would be appropriate in this context to remember the heroic struggles that were undertaken by the great social reformers during the British rule, who were able to identify the plight of the depressed classes.
One of the most prominent of these reformers, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, has been in the vanguard of the movement. In this juncture I have to mention with great pride that the constitution of India which came into force on 26th Jan 1950 was drafted by a committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Ambedkar, himself a member of the Dalit community. The Indian constitution is committed to the promotion of social justice and has several important provisions to uplift the socially and educationally backward classes and weaker sections of society.
I consider this award to be a symbol of solidarity and providing us hope to continuously fight against inequality, injustice and oppression meted out to the Dalits for more than 3000 years, by the age old social order, namely the caste system.
The continuation of the practice of casteism and untouchability in traditional and modern forms led to ever-present violations of human rights. Despite legal provisions the institution of untouchability continues to govern the socio-economic and political realm in our country.
Eighty million Dalit women in India encounter the cumulative impact of discrimination in their day to day lives.
They are denied of their dignity, livelihood and social security and everything that is humane and just.
Women continue to suffer discrimination based on 'work and descent', which lead to social exclusion, physical separation, degrading of occupation like manual scavenging, violent appropriation and sexual control by men of the dominant caste, evident in systematic rape of Dalit women and perpetuation of forced prostitution in the name of religion through the Devadasi system.
The state and non state upper caste actors act with impunity, violating domestic and international human rights law.
Dalit women have to grapple with the discrimination due to caste hierarchy and untouchability on the one hand and extreme economic deprivation and poverty on the other coupled with political, legal and religious-cultural discrimination. They are thrice alienated, by caste, being lower than others; by class, being the most poor and by gender, due to patriarchy.
A very serious issue is that the Dalits face persistent chronic poverty. Landlessness among Dalits has increased; land reforms in favour of Dalits have come to an end; privatization has taken the process of land distribution; there are more Dalit wage labourers; urban Dalits have moved from regular labour to casual labour; privatization has increased unemployment for urban Dalits.
Globalization induces reduction of government spending on public health, education and basic services, which will have a direct impact on Dalit women. The withdrawal of these resources therefore refrain the government from fulfillment of its constitutional obligations.
Moreover, in the present context of globalization and the deliberate ideological project of economic liberalization with a crumbling social protection system and increase in job insecurity - what is the future of the Dalits?
The consequence is that the Dalit will suffer further grinding poverty, exclusion and discrimination.
Dalit women believe in promoting a massive cultural movement to cleanse the minds of people of caste notions and implant in its place the attitude of liberty, equality and fraternity, which has been enshrined in our constitution.
They also reiterate that the cause for violence and atrocities are linked to dependency relationships. Therefore, investing land in the hands of the rural Dalit women, and providing housing facilities for the urban poor women is crucial. Since large numbers of Dalit women workers are in the unorganized sector including agriculture, provision of social security gains a momentum.
In order for Dalit women to attain liberation and dignity, it is crucial for them to acquire higher education and social, political and economic upliftment, capacitating for leadership and decision making positions, and that they are brought on par with the general population in terms of overall development.
We, Dalit women, call upon the international community to undertake and support all possible measure to fight the widespread discrimination, violence and impunity committed against Dalit women.
Dalit women's rights are a global responsibility. Silence surrounding violence must end. I hope you will be our partners to stand up for freedom, inalienable rights to human dignity and equal status for all in the society.
Our sufferings encourage us to have a common cause with other oppressed and struggling people of the world. We as Dalit women pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.
"To bounce like a ball that has been hit became my deepest desire,
and not to curl up and collapse because of the blow."
Interview with Dr. Ruth Manorama (September 22, 2006)
Q: What is the situation of Dalit Women in today's India?
A: The situation of Dalit Women in India is unique in nature. Age-old caste discrimination and prejudices operate to keep the Dalit women poor, illiterate, dependent, subjugated, oppressed and victimised. They display the poorest social indicators and dismal social and economic achievements. They lack access to resources such as water, common grazing grounds, roads and playing fields especially in the rural areas. Though they form the backbone of India's agricultural workforce, growing food for everyone, they lack the means to eat one square meal a day. Their dwellings are always outside the boundaries of the main village. Hence they are always at the mercy of upper caste landlords for getting water, firewood, fodder, employment, mobility and even to purchase basic necessities.
Q: What do you do to help them?
A: The women in the community who are part of the organisation are enabled and capacitated through the training programmes to deal with these issues. The National Federation of Dalit Women continues to organise leadership-training programmes and provides skills in organising and information on legal protection to fight against caste discrimination. They were also given information on how to access socio-economic programmes for their upliftment, many women leaders of The National Federation of Dalit Women organise village, taluk, district level meetings to articulate their problems and seek solutions from governments and building strong networks among themselves.
Q: What were your own experiences with being a Dalit Woman?
A: One is always reminded which social hierarchy you come from - be it at school, university or church. If you are a Dalit, people look down upon you as if you come from a very dirty and polluted background. One cannot escape caste even though you study in the urban cities in English-speaking institutions. Especially when you are at the age of marriage caste determines whom you have to marry; this is part of all Indian women's lives. When I was grown up I realised how difficult it is to establish myself as a Dalit woman in the women's movement because the higher caste women (who dominate the women's movement) tend to think that they are the seat of knowledge and intelligence and they only could provide essence to the feminist discourse. Because of my effort I overthrew this dominance and contributed to the formation of the Dalit feminism.
Q: The discrimination of Dalits is very deeply rooted in Indian society. How can you change these old prejudices? What do you do to make people listen?
A: According to me the caste hierarchy itself is founded by men for appropriation of wealth, status, and opportunities, to subjugate and oppress other human beings. There is no scientific validation in keeping the caste statuesque. This needs to be challenged by educating the people who face discrimination and prejudices in their day-to-day lives. An intensive human rights education for all communities needs to be provided to overcome the old prejudices.
Q: Can the Right Livelihood Award help to further your cause?
A: By awarding me the Right Livelihood Award you will be providing the recognition not only to the set of issues that I am working on, but recognising the rights, dignity and the due socio-economic-political share of the Dalit women who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy in India.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
To build the Dalit Women's organisation strongly and to establish alliances across other discriminated communities.
Political representation and participation of women, particularly from Dalit communities, in all decision-making bodies to be enhanced.
Developing new and young women leadership.