Bringing Dalit Women to the Forefront: Realities and Challenges

There are approximately 160 million people in Bangladesh. Although more than 80 percent of the population are Bengali Muslims, there is still significant diversity in terms of ethnicity, religion, language, etc. The Dalits are one category among these diverse groups who have received special attention in recent years, both internationally and nationally. Development agencies and activists are working on Dalit issues, while the literature on the Dalits continues to evolve, conceptually and empirically.

The Dalit are one of the most marginalized groups in Bangladesh and are often subject to discriminatory treatment. Historically, they have been oppressed by dominant groups in mainstream society. The majority of Dalits are very poor, underprivileged, and possess limited job opportunities. Moreover, they are politically underrepresented and many are forced to live in inhumane conditions. They are socially excluded, stigmatized, and isolated from mainstream society.

Among the Dalit as a social group, women are the most marginalized of the marginalized. They face a kind of double marginality: First, they are marginalized as Dalits, and second, they are marginalized as women.

Sadly, until very recently, Dalit issues have been ignored or denied by the Government of Bangladesh, donors, and civil society. Dalit women’s issues have received scant national or international attention, and little empirical research has been undertaken to define and understand them. With this situation in mind, this research has been undertaken to understand the nature of the cultural, social, economic, and political vulnerabilities of Dalit women in Bangladesh, and the factors that define them. This report also aims to provide a strategic direction for future development interventions to empower Dalit women.

Different studies have found that Dalit women in Bangladesh, who occupy the bottom of both caste and gender hierarchies, face multiple forms of violence and discrimination (as Dalits; as members of an impoverished underclass; as women), and are particularly vulnerable. The endemic gender and caste discrimination and violence faced by Dalit women is the outcome of severely imbalanced social, economic, and political power equalities. Dalit communities are patriarchal with deeply conservative values about gender roles, which lead to severe restrictions of women’s rights, mobility, and freedoms.

In contemporary market-based societies, three forms of capital are necessary for any individual to make a decent living: economic, social, and cultural. Dalit women lack all three. Unfortunately, they have little guarantee of accessing these forms of capitals while dwelling in bounded and patriarchal Dalit communities. They have limited access to land, credits, and loans from formal institutions, and cannot access other economic resources. Their social capital is limited to kinship networks within their communities. They are not allowed to gain other forms of social capital through cultural institutions such as schools, clubs, associations, alumni networks, etc.

The study on Dalit women has been conducted using a mixed method approach to the collection of primary data. The study team conducted a quantitative survey through a closed-ended questionnaire with 500 respondents distributed in eight locations across eight administrative divisions of the country. The respondents were Dalit women from eight different Dalit communities: Bashfor, Telagu, Domee, Robidas, Rishi, Kawra, Malo/Barmon/Jele/Jaladas, and tea labourer communities.

To collect qualitative data, the research team conducted a total of 32 Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) around the country. In each of the eight locations, four FGDs were held. The FGDS included four types of participants: a) women of the Dalit community; b) men of the Dalit community; c) girls of the Dalit community, and d) boys of Dalit community. A total of 32 Key Informant Interviews (KII) were conducted as part of this research study. KII respondents were chosen from upazila administration representatives tasked with delivering services to Dalit communities. Here, officials included upazila social welfare officers, upazila women’s affairs officers, and upazila youth officers.

The different chapters of the study describe the socio-economic conditions and cultural dynamism, marginalization and vulnerability, grander identity, political participation and empowerment of Dalit woman in Bangladesh, based on findings from both quantitative and qualitative approaches.

Of the 500 Dalit women interviewed by the study, only 44.4 percent had attended school. Among them, 63.1 percent had completed the primary school level; 5.9 percent completed the secondary school level, and none of the respondents had completed the HSC level. Dalit girls’ educational aspirations are shadowed by the extreme poverty of their communities, compounded by factors such as lack of educational awareness, early marriage, etc.

Livelihood options for Dalit women are very limited. This section of the report highlights the major sources of income for Dalit women in the chosen study areas. The field data shows that, out of 500 respondents, 47 percent work at home and not involved in any economic activities. The rate of unemployment among Dalit women is thus quite high. For those who do work, the major income earning activities are cleaning (17.2 percent), tea plantation labour (15.4 percent), pig rearing (5 percent), and agricultural labour (4 percent). Sweeping/cleaning has been the main source of earned income for Dalit women for generations.

The monthly incomes of Dalit households in this study ranged from under Taka 2,000 to over Taka 10,000. Of the 500 households surveyed, 28 percent have monthly incomes of Taka 10,000 or above; 20 percent are in the Taka 4,000-Taka 6,000 range; 17.8 percent are in the Taka 6,001-Taka 8,000 range; 17.6 percent in the Taka 8,000-Taka 10,000 range; 8.6 percent in the Taka 2,001-Taka 4,000 range, and 8 percent households have monthly incomes of less than Taka 2,000. The pattern of expenditure varied across households, depending on the number of household members and the nature of their occupations. Dalit women complained that male household members spent less on household needs and more on their personal needs, i.e. alcohol and smoking. Alcohol-related expenditures made by husbands was found to be higher in some households.

The general health awareness of respondents was satisfactory. They reported that NGOs and government community clinics run health awareness Programmes on different primary health issues in areas where they live. In discussion, Dalit women said that their children are immunized. They also reported visiting health complexes for antenatal and postnatal services during and after pregnancy. But the overall unhygienic conditions in their community leaves them vulnerable to health risks and diseases. Scarcity of safe water, inadequate sanitation and drainage systems, lack of hygiene, lack of knowledge of proper menstrual hygiene management, lack of solid waste disposal management systems, and congested and unhygienic living spaces are some of the severe problems and health hazards faced by Dalit women and children in this study.

Early marriage is a problem hindering the development of Dalit girls. 38.6 percent of Dalit girls are married off between the ages of 16-18. According to respondents, poverty and social insecurity are two major reasons that parents arrange marriages for their under-18 daughters. The practice of dowry is very common.

Dalit communities are male-dominated. Dalit women’s political influence in the clan or caste — namely, the panchayat structure — is so low that they are excluded from any decision-making process at the local level and, due to patriarchal cultural norms and ideologies, are not allowed to represent their communities at the national level. This lack of political and social power leaves them unable to challenge their marginalization and exclusion. All these factors feed into each other, perpetuating the low economic and social status of Dalit women and reproducing it over generations. Therefore, the marginalization of the Dalit woman is multidimensional.

With rare exceptions, Harijan (sweeper) women and men are not allowed to enter local restaurants where their occupation is known. They are required to stay outside, and restaurant staff hand food to them there. They are not allowed to use any utensils belonging to the restaurant, and must carry their own plates and glasses to eat/drink. Sweepers belong at the bottom of the bottom among the Dalit, and they face extreme exclusion— specifically in restaurants within their localities. However, sweeper women of different castes said that hiding their identities may allow them to enter restaurants far from their localities. They added that Dalit men, especially younger ones, can sometimes enter restaurants, but that the Dalit woman’s distinctive style of wearing the sari (which is considered an identity marker) prevents them from doing so. This is the key reason that women of younger generations do not wear saris in their traditional distinctive style. According to the study findings, around 5 percent of Bashfor women, less than 5 percent of Rishi women, and around 2 percent of Kawra and Jaladas women reported problems moving within the larger community and accessing different public spaces.

In general, Dalit people own very little land and reside mainly in government colonies and, in rural areas, on government lands. Dalit women rarely own land unless it has been donated by others or inherited from their parents or their husbands. Nevertheless, a few women in this study had access to land, which is considered the most important economic resource in create positive change in life.

As citizens of the state, Dalit women are entitled to government services in Bangladesh. Moreover, they most often work for local government bodies such as municipalities that deliver such services to citizens. Yet their access to these services ties is limited. When interviewed for this study, local government officials claimed concern for the wellbeing of Dalit communities. In reality, however, Dalits receive very little access to social services.

Historically, Dalit communities are patriarchal, and women and girls live at the edge of society. Families are run by strong patriarchal values, which often limit Dalit women’s freedom of choice or self-expression in household decision-making. The data shows that women accept their subordinate position within the household and do not believe they have a right to participate in family decision-making, or to freely express themselves.

Dalit women’s mobility and their public role is defined by male family members and the rules of the clan. Their mobility is limited within their own communities and requires the permission of male family members i.e. father, brother or husband. The family will determine how far a girl or woman can go alone, depending on her age and marital status.

As members of a patriarchal community, Dalit women from all eight castes reported being victimized by violence. They are physically and mentally tortured by family members.

The Bangladesh Government has taken several steps to ensure the well-being of Dalit men and women. It has introduced special Dalit, Harijan and Bede allowances, but these allowances are inadequate to address their practical conditions and needs. This study offers a number of recommendations to promote the well-being and empowerment of Dalit women who are the most marginalized of the marginalized in Bangladesh society.


• Positive, effective, and meaningful interaction between Dalit women and Dalit men should be organized and encouraged through different advocacy programmes to reduce domestic violence. • Government and NGOs programmes should target young Dalit men and boys to positively change their attitudes towards women and violence against women. • Focus should be given to promoting positive interaction between Dalit and non-Dalit children at school, and raising non-¬Dalit children’s awareness of the dignity and rights of the Dalit. • Further advocacy and lobbying efforts are needed to pressure line ministries to ensure Dalit women’s access social safety net programmes. • The active participation of Dalit women in life beyond the family, including local community power structures, should be promoted and encouraged. • In addition to government efforts, NGOs and other institutions should provide skill-training to Dalit women to help them find alternative means of income. • Development interventions for Dalit women should be long-term and should focus on future generations and youth. Ensuring proper education and facilitating decent income-earning opportunities could be the most effective way to empower future generations of Dalit women.