Sunita Devi couldn’t take her Class IX final exams because the date clashed with the day of her marriage. Nine years on, she has not only completed her BA, but also teaches other Dalit women who couldn’t continue their studies after marriage. The resident of Baghpat in western Uttar Pradesh was recounting her story to a large number of Dalit women who had gathered here on Tuesday as part of the first national conference of Dalit women to debate and outline a National Dalit Development Agenda. The agenda is to focus on the access of Dalits to essential services like Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme (MDM) and the Public Distribution Scheme (PDS).

“After marriage I told my husband that at any cost I would continue my studies. I challenged the social norms prevailing in Baghpat because somebody has to take the courage to break the social structures. If you won’t then nobody will,” Sunita told the cheering crowd.

Sunita was joined by Laxmi Bagri, a field worker on Dalit issues in Haryana. She narrated her story of fighting against a casteist and patriarchal society. “I raised my voice against sexual violence on fellow Dalit women and took the matter up with the police. The victims got justice because of the solidarity shown by the Dalit rights activists and groups,” she said.

“The bottom line is that it is high time we say no to all kinds of violence by any body and every body,” Laxmi , adding, “We need to take our every legitimate right from the self appointed guardians of the society.”

The occasion saw eminent feminist and women’s leader Kamla Bhasin singing empowering songs about not getting bogged down by patriarchal dictates and fulfilling one’s every wish and aspiration.

“Let’s take a pledge not to be defeated by patriarchal onslaught. All that it takes is courage on our part,” said Ms. Bhasin.

During the public hearing, the Dalit women talked about how they faced discrimination while accessing food programmes like PDS, ICDS and MDM and demanded that ICDS centres and PDS shops be opened in Dalit villages. They also demanded that the cooking staff should be appointed from among the SC/ST to “eliminate the notions of purity, pollution and untouchability.”

On this occasion, Ashok Bharti from the National Confederation of Dalit Organisation, a coalition of several Dalit rights groups, underscored that at present the PDS, ICDS, and the MDM were arguably the strongest available tools with which the poor and marginalised could actualise their Right to Food.

“But the biggest roadblock is the considerable disadvantage faced by Dalits while accessing these schemes which has finally resulted in poor nutritional indicators of the majority of the SC/ST communities,” he added.

A recent UNICEF study showed that 37 per cent of reported maternal deaths were from the Scheduled Castes, said Mr. Bharti, adding that children from SC/ST communities were more likely to be underweight and malnourished.

“It shows that there is some thing seriously wrong with our nutritional policies,” he said, demanding the National Nutrition Policy be redesigned and a National Nutrition Authority be established with substantial presence from the SC/ST communities. He also asked the Government to make the social audit of all food and nutritional schemes mandatory.

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