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Educating India’s Dalit Children Can Change the Discourse Around Caste

Schools that provide high-quality, gender-balanced education for the children of underprivileged Dalit families can improve the economic well-being of entire communities and start to break down the stigma surrounding caste, says Smriti Sharma of UNU-WIDER.

Written by Smriti Sharma Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Indian girls from the Dalit Shakti Kendra foundation carry a large folded flag in preparation for Indian Independence Day. Dalits in general are yet to see all the benefits of caste-based affirmative action that was introduced in 1950. AFP/SAM PANTHAKY

The circumstances that children are born into and face in their early lives can have enduring effects on their outcomes, extending well into adulthood. Being born into a low-caste or Dalit family in India is a notable example of how the accident of birth can dictate the course of a person’s life. While caste and economic status are intricately linked, being Dalit carries with it the stigma of untouchability, as these groups were historically considered ritually polluting to the more privileged castes and were therefore subjected to segregation and lowly jobs. Casteism combined with pervasive patriarchy and gender inequality means that multiple burdens arise from being a poor Dalit female. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and fare worse than non-Dalit women and Dalit men in terms of education levels and accessing health and other public services.

Caste-based affirmative action, introduced in 1950 to create a level playing field by providing equal opportunities for excluded groups, has led to some improvement in economic well-being among low castes. But Dalits lag behind on several economic indicators and continue to be the targets of identity-based violence, while untouchability is still practiced in several parts of rural India.

The Debate Over Affirmative Action

The Indian Constitution introduced affirmative action in the form of quotas for members of the Scheduled Castes (the official term for Dalits) in institutions of higher education, government jobs, local governments and national and state legislatures. The implementation of quotas has been a contentious issue, with opponents asserting that its benefits are cornered by the already well-off Dalits; that it reinforces casteism; and that it compromises merit as the policy, by design, has lower thresholds for selection.

But advocates of the policy also say it falls short, arguing that to increase the effectiveness of quotas which kick in only at the college level, there is a need to address caste gaps in education access and learning from an early age, so that Dalit children do not drop out early and are better prepared to gain from their experiences in higher education and compete with others on a more equal footing. In fact, recent research in economics shows that early childhood development and education is a cost-effective investment, especially for disadvantaged children.

An Innovative Social Experiment

One such initiative to reduce the educational disadvantage of Dalits from an early age is the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, which runs a residential school in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The vision of its founder, Abraham George, is to provide well-rounded, high-quality education from preschool onward to children from poor Dalit families, so that after they graduate they can financially support their families and help their local communities. Free education and board is provided during school and most costs are covered throughout college. The emphasis on educating girls (half the students in every grade are female), treating boys and girls as equals and instilling gender-sensitive attitudes among male students is noteworthy.

Shanti Bhavan is featured in a new documentary, “Daughters of Destiny,” that tracks the journey of five female students over multiple years. It grants the viewer a glimpse not just into the students’ school lives but also the struggles they face in reconciling their experiences in the comfortable environs of Shanti Bhavan with the poverty and casteism their families confront every day. From the documentary, it is evident that Shanti Bhavan, while making students aware of their caste and its potential implications, is able to reduce the stigma of caste from an early age by providing quality education in a supportive environment.

This undoubtedly is a practical way to alleviate poverty and reduce some of the income constraints among Dalit families, even though the returns to investment in education can be reaped only with a considerable lag. More importantly, a social experiment of this type can have significant consequences for intergenerational mobility. Most students at Shanti Bhavan are the first in their families to attend and complete school, representing a distinct break in the trajectories of their families. Their schooling experience has exposed them to new ideas and opportunities and taught them to aspire toward goals that previously were inconceivable for their families. This can play a key role in encouraging future generations within these families and communities. But an unintended side effect of this model is that some students feel tremendous pressure from a young age to provide for their families, and this may mean compromising their own dreams for a more secure and well-paying job.

Crucial Challenges Remain

Scaling up a model along the lines of Shanti Bhavan seems a promising avenue to increase education levels and incomes among Dalit communities in a sustainable manner. However, the subject of caste is so fraught that no one policy can adequately ensure social inclusion. Discriminatory attitudes toward Dalits are still a reality, even in urban India. In “Daughters of Destiny,” Karthika, a high-achieving student at Shanti Bhavan who gains admission to one of the country’s top law schools, worries that a prospective employer may consider her caste more important than her qualifications.

If schools of this type can equip a sufficient share of Dalit students with a good education, a critical mass of accomplished and prominent Dalits could begin to break down stereotypes, change the discourse around caste and pave the path for more meaningful interactions across caste groups.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women & Girls.

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