Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Caste System and Women's Rights by Bilkis Olagoke

Globally, denial of women’s human rights and discrimination against women unfortunately is still a growing trend. A very good example is the caste system which is historically a system of social stratification that is descent based and hereditary, determined by an individual’s birth.  For example in India, there are four traditionally predominant castes consisting of the Brahmins, the intellectual class, Kshatriyas, the warrior class, Vaishyas, the agricultural and trader class and Shudras, the service or manual worker class. They are known as the upper caste. Another class that falls outside the traditional four-fold caste system is the “untouchables” known as the Dalits or Scheduled caste (the lower class). Even though it was said that “untouchability” has been abolished in the India constitution, the discrimination against the Dalits still exist as they are considered as impure and polluting. Women from the Dalit especially suffer a lot of discrimination, exploitation and violence from the upper caste and the  society at large. They do not hold the same status as the upper class. There is discrimination in schools, they do not have the rights to free choice of employment, Dalit women are forced to do the most degrading work such as manual scavenging and are also subjected to exploitative labour arrangements like prostitution. Marriage and any social interactions between the Dalits women and the upper class are prohibited and women who marry above their caste are forced to close all ties with their families. Unfortunately, they are also vulnerable to sexual violence by the police who are supposed to be their protector.

In Nigeria also, there is the Osu caste system which is a practice amongst the Igbo people, even though it is fading away gradually due to the presence of religion and education. It is still practiced in some communities and it is still a hindrance to the rights of women.  Traditionally, there are two classes of people in Igbo land. The Nwadiala – the freeborn or the masters and the Osu, the slaves, outcast or the “untouchables”. Like the caste system in India, there is discrimination against the Osu women which leads to disinheritance, ostracism, denial of chieftaincy title, denial of membership in social clubs, violent disruption of marriage ceremonies, expulsion of wives etc because they are “slaves” and this is more prominent when it comes to marriage between the freeborn and the Osu. An osu cannot marry a freeborn. The belief is that any freeborn that marries an Osu defiles the family. The parent and other members of the family can go along way to dissolve this type of marriage thereby subjecting women to heartbreaks and emotional trauma.

My own view is that we are all equal and we all have equal rights. Violation of women’s rights in the name of culture should not be allowed. Culture needs to be redefined to ensure the equality of all without any discrimination. This is necessary to achieve peace and development.