Opening the Door to Equality: Access to Justice for Dalits in Nepal

“Only a day ago, a Dalit man in Kalikot was beaten to death for ’polluting’ a cooking stove by his touch. And just one month ago in Darchula district the relatives of a Dalit groom married to a non-Dalit bride were physically assaulted and their house was burnt down.” Those examples of caste-based discrimination from Jyoti Sanghera, the Head of the UN Human Rights office (OHCHR) in Nepal were recounted at a regional symposium organized to discuss access to justice for Dalits. Sanghera offered the examples as “a strong reminder of how caste discrimination is still entrenched today.”

A Dalit mother cradles her child © OHCHR NepalWorld-wide, an estimated 260 million people are affected by caste-based discrimination, the result of rigid social stratification which is descent-based and hereditary in nature. Under this system, those in the lowest category, Dalits, are regarded as “untouchable”.

This form of discrimination is based on perceptions of purity and pollution which are deeply embedded in centuries-old beliefs and practices. It locks affected communities into a persistent and vicious cycle of poverty, segregation, marginalization and exploitation.

The report from OHCHR Nepal, “Opening the Door to Equality: Access to Justice for Dalits in Nepal”, identifies the factors that continue to make it difficult for victims of caste-based discrimination to access justice. It is based on cases investigated and tracked by OHCHR Nepal, primarily in the far-western region – one of the most impoverished and least developed parts of the country - over the past five years.

Launching the report, the Director of the Research and Right to Development Division of the UN Human Rights office in Geneva, Marcia V. J. Kran acknowledged the “rapid progress” that has been made in Nepal: representation of Dalits in the Constituent Assembly; criminalizing caste-based discrimination and untouchability through the ‘milestone’ adoption of the Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability Act in May this year; and the strong commitment from the Nepali Government to end caste discrimination and untouchability during the first review of the country’s human rights situation at the Universal Period Review – a process engaged in by all UN Member States through the Human Rights Council.

The report also refers to the “ground-breaking” decisions of the Baitadi District Court in far-western Nepal. In March last year, for example, a man was found guilty of physically assaulting the father of the groom during a wedding ceremony for practicing rituals “reserved for high-caste communities”. The accused received a 12 months prison sentence and was fined several thousand rupees.

“While there is much progress in Nepal, much still remains to be done,” Kran said. “Access to justice remains a major issue at the local and district levels. Institutions, rules and procedures have to be strengthened.”

A holistic approach is required, the report says, to overcome the many outstanding obstacles and challenges including: low levels of awareness that caste-based discrimination is a crime; failure of the police and courts to prosecute and punish perpetrators and offer appropriate remedies to victims; and the poverty of those affected by caste-based discrimination and their dependence on non-Dalit communities for their livelihoods.

“In Nepal, entrenched discrimination has been widely acknowledged as one of the issues contributing to the 10 year-long internal armed conflict,” Sanghera said.

Since the signing of the peace agreement five years ago, “Nepal has taken a leading role, at the global level, in combating caste-based discrimination and untouchability. However, and despite existing strong national legal standards and international obligations, the crimes of caste-based discrimination and untouchability are still prevalent in Nepal,” she said.

The report, launched within the joint OHCHR-Nepal and National Dalit Commission 100 days campaign, “I commit to end caste based discrimination and untouchability”, is “one of the contributions of our office in support of the work of the Government of Nepal, national institutions, civil society and the victims to end caste discrimination and untouchability,” Sanghera said.

22 December 2011

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