Mumbai (AsiaNews) Ruth Manorama is known as the Voice of India's Dalit Women. For her commitment to their cause, she received the 2006 Right Livelihood Award, also know as the 'Alternative' Nobel Prize*.
The 42-year-old Christian woman from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, heads the National Federation of Dalit Women. She has taken part in numerous international meetings to promote the rights of Indian outcaste women. In 1995 she played an important role in the 4th United Nations World Conference on Women held in Beijing (China). She kindly gave AsiaNews this interview.
What made you get involved so actively on behalf of Dalit women?
Their life is deprived of any human dignity, they endure oppression, they are marginalised. This is why I work on their behalfso that they can be guaranteed a better future. I am Christian and Jesus is my inspiration. He taught us equality, peace and justice.
Can you describe the situation of outcaste women in today's India?
Women are considered second class citizens; their contribution to society is either undervalued or even denied. All social indicatorsfor example literacy and unemploymentshow that Dalit women are at the bottom. When it comes to victims of violence, they are at the top of the list.
Is there any difference between cities and the countryside?
Life for rural Dalit women is really hard. Health facilities are inadequate, dignified jobs are in short supply and economic conditions are really bad. The situation in the cities is not much better. It is mostly Dalit women who manually scavenge latrines in terribly unhygienic conditions. In India the practice was banned in 1993 but the law has not really made any major dent in the situation.
In addition to being humiliating, the practice raises serious social and health-related questions. Not only are Dalit physically ostracised but so are their children. It is one more reason for being treated as an outcaste. For them getting a basic education is very difficult. It is an unfair social system, one that considers a cow's life more precious than that of a human being from a lower caste.
What is the government doing to improve their conditions?
Often political authorities don't really want to rehabilitate these women. There are programmes . . . on paper. Funds have been allocated for Dalit development but nothing happens. Higher social classes are deaf and indifferent to their plight. They'd rather talk about a united India launched on path making it one of the world's major economic and political powers. But that is only half of the truth.
Has any powerful force tried to interfere with your work?
I am not alone. The National Federation of Dalit Women helps me in giving Dalit women a voice.
What do you think of the latest discrimination imposed on Christians?
I think they [Christian Dalits] should get the same rights as Hindu Dalits. What is granted in the name of caste should not be denied on the basis of religion.
What happens now that you won the Alternative Nobel Prize?
Winning the prize will give the Dalit cause greater visibility in India, especially as far as women are concerned. We must fight apathy and acknowledge that Dalit women live in pitiful conditions and that we must integrate them into society.
*The Right Livelihood Award was established in 1980 in Sweden by Jakob von Uexkull, a writer and former Member of the European Parliament. It honours groups and individuals who, through personal sacrifice, uphold the principles of 'Right Livelihood' despite opposition by those in power, who might see them as an obstacle to their rule.
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