16. A Shadow Named Gita: An Analysis of Domestic versus International Aid Work in Eliminating the Hindu Nepal Caste System

Author: Samantha Italiano, Senior

There is a small door at the top of the stairs. The small door at the top of the stairs is a mystery; the door remains closed. On one particularly sunny afternoon I climb the stairs passing the small door to continue onto the open roof-top. Stop! The door is cracked open. I quickly peer inside and at first glance it appears to be a closet. I look again, and there are a few pairs of clothes, some torn up books, and a tiny lumpy, mattress behind the door. Behind the small door at the top of the stairs is a shadow; it is the sleeping quarters of a shadow named Gita. 

The day I stepped into my Nepali host family’s house I knew it was going to be a challenging semester. Gita was introduced to me as my ‘helping sister.’ She came to my family’s home when she was a young child, and grew up as ‘part of the family’; however, Gita was slowly taught various chores. At age fourteen, Gita was now responsible for the cooking, cleaning, washing, errand running, and anything else my host family asked of her. I quickly realized this term ‘helping sister’ was a nice way to say indentured servant. As more time passed and I become acquainted with my host family I began asking questions: where did Gita come from; why was Gita here; and how long would Gita stay? Although most questions went unanswered either because of the language barrier or because I was told multiple versions of  stories from the plethora of locals I encountered, as such I made one conclusion: Gita’s primary factor in being placed into this life path in Nepal was because she was born into the caste system.
The Hindu caste system is an ancient form of categorizing people and has been embedded into the Nepali culture for thousands of years.  Since its originality, the caste system is primarily dictated by occupations. Further, most often people born into the caste system have no way of escaping the system; even people who convert into a different religion that does not believe in the caste system, are categorized by those still living as Hindus. For example, a man born as a Hindu Dalit, the lowest caste or the untouchable caste, who decides to convert to Buddhism and still lives in a predominantly Hindu society will still be treated as a low-caste member; and further, if an originally high-caste member converts, that person will be seen as even a lower-caste member. The combination of a born into categorization and predetermined occupations based on that category is a system of oppression. People in Nepal live their daily lives constantly encountering the barriers of the caste system. This paper examines the difficulties and inequalities embedded within this system and will discuss ways in which the system is slowly being eliminated. The purpose of the paper is to define the Nepali Hindu caste system in terms of occupational limitations and further to investigate ways in which other oppressive systems have been abolished and parallel those methods with those being used in Nepal. This paper will specifically examine the British child labor system from the Industrial Revolution and discuss how this domestic abolition movement compares to that of the domestic movements within Nepal; then, the paper will examine international movements working to abolish the caste system and conclude by determining the effectiveness of international and domestic abolition movements.

Literature Review
The first step in this paper is to provide the basic understandings of the caste system. This system is a complex form of categorization using ethnicity, religion, racial backgrounds, and occupations to divide people into social groups.  The original Hindu caste system, the Vedic model, used four classifications: Brahmin (priests); Chhetris (fighters); Vaishya (craftsmen, tradesmen and cultivators); and Shudras (servers of the higher castes).  Then these categories were broken down further based on geographic location and more specifically ethnicity. For example, the peoples of the Tarai Brahmins, who are located in the southern part of Nepal (close to India), were ranked lower in the caste system than people in the Chhetri caste.  The author argues multiple conditions factor into the rankings within the caste system, with geographic location being one of the factors. 

Gurung argues that the Nepalese government and people are confused about the term Dalit. There is a misconception as to what people fall into this caste categorization. Typically paired with the term ‘untouchable’, Gurung found that in fact not all Dalit social groups are of the untouchable caste. In 2002 the government reported 28 Dalit social groups, and only 18 of those groups belonged to the untouchable caste; the other Dalit groups are categorized as impure castes, but not untouchable. Nevertheless, the above report is merely from one source, while many other sources Gurung uses provide variations of the amount of groups listed as Dalit. The lack of cohesiveness in a precise definition for the term Dalit serves only to further exacerbate the injustice of the other factors that determine the caste rankings. Grouping all Dalit members of Nepalese society disregards various ethnicities from all different regions of the country; one grouping also disregards the variation of traditional occupations. Table 1.1 provides an outline of the variation in Dalit citizens based on geographic region, ethnicity, and occupation. Gurung argues that despite the lack of definition and the misunderstandings of rankings, Dalit members of society are oppressed (a literal translation of the word), and thus fall into a category of lifelong poverty and illiteracy.

In examining the effects of special policies in Nepal to eliminate the oppression felt by the Dalit caste, Nepali argues that the current government development work being done is not transferable to action.  Dalit populations face discrimination in every aspect of life including access to education, employment opportunities, and freedom to be in public places. In a cross-international borders assessment, Borooah examines 30,000 households in India, determining that the economic and income difference between households is based on unequal treatment among castes. Comparing Hindu caste members to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (untouchable castes) of India this research found significant difference in health, education, land ownership, and an ubiquitous fear of oppression, with the untouchable groups ranking considerably lower. Although Borooah’s research took place in India, the general findings are comparable to those in Nepal, shown by Nepali.
Starting in 1990, development work began to integrate increasingly fair opportunities for Dalit members of society, including the ‘road map’ produced by the government in 2004, which proposed recruiting people for civil services requiring 20% to be women and 10% to be of the Dalit caste. Nevertheless, Nepali argues the policy has stayed locked up in the office of the policy makers rather than action taken in the field. Without access to education, better employment opportunities, and services the Dalit caste will forever remain oppressed.

Looking at the micro-level impacts of the caste system, Frøystad discusses the relationships between the master and the servant of low caste members in India. Although India has made caste discrimination illegal, the presence of caste oppression within the family structure is readily apparent. Examining three case studies, Frøystad found two outcomes among the relationships. One of the families was determined to “extract the maximum amount of work from their servant,” while in the other two families the author found a mutual gain for both the live-in servant and the master. Although the author found positive development in the relationship between lower caste servants and upper caste masters, Frøystad argues the caste system still is present, based on the occupational determinant of people in a particular caste. Because people are put into the servant role based upon their caste, the potentially positive relationship between the master and servant still promotes caste-based discrimination.

In looking at the specific kamaiya system resulting from caste discrimination, Giri (2012) examines the efforts of the United Nations in eliminating this form of bonded labor, and more specifically discusses these practices with children enslaved in the system. The author suggest exploring elimination policies on a continuum model, arguing that both parties (the master and the laborer) must be taken into consideration. This model relates to the results of the attempts made in 2000. At that time, the Nepalese government eliminated the kamaiya system. This system involves 30,000 to 2 million children and is a form of agricultural bonded labor in Nepal. Members of lower castes are susceptible to the kamaiya system because of the lack of education and the cry for help to alleviate poverty. Benefits for children joining this system include: escaping difficult relationships at home, getting food and clothes, a possibility to attend school, potential positive treatment, and social networking opportunities. Nevertheless, the list of negative factors of this system include: homesickness, discrimination, false promise of education, heavy work, lack of leisure, and negative treatment including sexual and physical abuse.  Children in the kamaiya system are largely discriminated against because of their caste and receive limited access to sleeping quarters and kitchen activities. Children taking part in this labor system are neglected from a family and feel the burdens of discrimination. Giri further reports that the system is cyclical because the employer is not only from a higher caste, but also has a higher socio-economic status because of the caste system. As seen in the United States abolishment of slavery in the 1860s, masters of laborers within the kamaiya system became fearful of the law passed in 2000.  These masters began to “release” servants and workers into society, claiming no ownership of these people. Although laborers realized the kamaiya system was oppressive and they were on the cusp of ‘freedom’, reality of socio-economic status and stability arose. In the western districts of Nepal, where the kamaiya system was heavily concentrated, poverty camps emerged and the death rate increased dramatically due to health crises. The Nepalese legislation back-fired and created an extensive problem: low caste members without any high-caste members taking ownership of the people’s living expenses and quality. Bales reported in 2007 that nearly two-thirds of the 40,000 freed kamaiya families never received any help from the government, despite promises of land and social services. Giri’s continuum model suggests that children bonded through the kamaiya system have found benefits such as being provided food, clothing, and a small income, as well as developing interpersonal skills, networking, and potentially access to education by the employer. The cost-benefit analysis Giri conducts, explains why children are still bonded in the kamaiya system, despite its illegal standings on a governmental level.

In examining the literature, the caste system is a complex strategy to group people. The system allows for,  and dictates oppression among the lower-caste systems. Despite efforts to eliminate labor systems, such as the kamaiya system, the Nepalese government has not provided substantial action that would terminate the caste system. The next section of this paper discusses the literature and how it relates to the action of moving forward in elimination efforts of the caste system.

As seen in the literature, a large determining factor of caste categorization in Nepal relates to the occupation a person holds. Lower castes hold ‘impure’ jobs, while higher castes work in fields that are well respected. In Frøystad’s examination of master-servant relations, she argues even the difference in treatment from a person cleaning toilets to a person cleaning dishes is drastic.  Although dishes and utensils hold food waste that has touched people’s mouths, a toilet holds internal filth. In many upper-caste homes that have multiple servants, duties will be delegated to different people based on their castes. This concept is similar throughout the world in that a trash collection person is seen differently than a business person; the main differentiating factor in the caste system is the person’s occupation is determined based on the caste they are born into from day one.

Starting life with a ‘defined’ future creates long-term issues revolving around oppression. A child born to low-caste parents begins their lives in poverty  and thus has few opportunities to attend school and climb the ‘ladder to success.’ The child then is told by society that he/she must partake in the specified occupation determined by the caste system, which will continue to oppress him/her because of its low quality of pay; it is a cyclical process. The kamaiya system, examined by both Bales and Giri provides a perfect example of how the system is a cycle. In order to analyze another child labor system, the focus of this paper will be turned to the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom.
During the Industrial Revolution, families sent their children, of all ages, to work due to difficult economic times. Again, children working in factories were children not attending school, and thus were thrown into a cyclical system of poverty. However, the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom first started to see changes in 1833 with the first piece of legislation: the Factory Act.  The first step in the act was to target the age group working in the factories, which was done by eliminating children under the age of nine to be working in industrial settings. The act also limited children ages nine to twelve to work no more than 48 hours per week. Then, in 1844, the ‘half-time system’ was created, where children worked for half-day and attended school for half-day. In three years’ time, employed children fell from 56,000 to 33,000 workers, based on the simplicity of reducing hours and demanding education through the Factory Act.  At the time, the accountability of inspections was skeptical and the idea of factory employers working the system was apparent; however, Nardinelli found the majority of factories typically obeyed the newly implemented laws. From 1835 to 1861 the percentage of child labor in textile factories dropped from 14.6% to 4.5%, when calculating children as “half” laborers based on the half-day policy. The Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom primarily began using child labor, a cheap labor source; yet the new “half time” legislative policies and the extent to which the factories were held accountable for their actions made serious changes in the labor system.
In looking at the efforts made by the International Labor Organization in collaboration with the Nepali government to outlaw the kamaiya system in 2000  the Nepalese legislation passed was comparably less effective than the similar legislation that is still upheld in the United Kingdom today. This Nepalese specific abolition movement promulgated by activists, politicians, and NGOs repeated efforts from the United States’ 1865 movement, with horrific ramifications. While the U.K. efforts were born of internal awareness,  the Nepali government received immense pressure by international organizations and delegates to make this change. The government attempted change by instilling fear in the masters, which resulted in total chaos. The Nepali government attempted to instill order again through rehabilitation programs including access to education and land; however, the government failed at this attempt. Today, despite the laws saying it is illegal, the kamaiya system still exists. The international community’s involvement with the Nepalese government, in the efforts to eliminate this specific system, failed in that the programs put in place were not taking into consideration the cultural impacts the programs would have. Instead more realistic measures being attempted by organizations within Nepal may prove to be more successful.

One effort made within Nepal to eliminate caste-based discrimination is made by the Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO).  This organization works specifically on creating a community of just and equality among Dalit caste members and specifically women. FEDO conducts workshops, rallies, media campaigns, and meetings to raise awareness about issues within the Dalit community. This organization was created in 1994 by Dalit women, and still has a strong presence in Nepal, today. FEDO recognizes the difficulties in creating a social change, and thus has begun with educating the Nepali people. The organization also provides its members with access to education and social justice opportunities. FEDO works both on a micro and macro level, seeing immediate effects at the micro level and working towards long-term effects on the macro level. Other organizations, such as fair trade organizations, are working to increase the ‘quota’ numbers of including Dalit members as a part of their organization.

The Nepali Hindu caste system is embedded deep within the culture. The system begins from the day a child is born and enslaves them, until the day a person dies. The discrimination that occurs within the system is significant and touches on many aspects of life. Further, the pre-determined caste a person falls into also determines their life course including education, socio-economic level, occupation, and how a person is viewed by others in the culture. Despite the cultural implications and the complex web, the literature suggests an elimination of the oppressive caste system is in order. After examining the efforts made by the Nepalese government, pressured by the international community, the organizations working domestically seem to be more successful. The efforts made by the Nepalese people themselves, and further by the people experiencing the oppression of the caste system, seen in the Feminist Dalit Organization align more closely with the true efforts being made. The use of domestic efforts made during the Industrial Revolution by the United Kingdom to eliminate the child labor system, proves similarly successful to the elimination efforts of the caste system in Nepal. In moving forward, this research suggests that grass roots domestic movements prove more successful. This is not to say international support, pressure, and assistance is not necessary; however, this research argues the efforts made within a country to create social change is more powerful than legislation and policies forced upon a government by the international community. Domestic organizations and legislative ideas come from within the culture; despite the complexity of the system, Nepalese organizations understand the caste system more so than western organizations.

To move forward in the efforts to destroy structures and organizational systems for discrimination of lower caste members,  this research suggests that the international communities should continue to pressure the Nepalese government, but through supporting the domestic organizations. For example, ActionAid is an international organization working in countries all over the world. The branch in Nepal focuses on education, women’s rights, and food insecurity issues, empowering the people within the communities to find solutions.  A collaborative effort must be made. It is also paramount to look at critically historic events, which may help to predict probable outcomes, such as the results of the abolition movement in the United States was similar to what occurred with the kamiaya system in Nepal. An assertive effort to collaborate with the local people and historically assess past events will assist Nepal in moving towards a more inclusive society.

The door at the top of stairs is closed again. Gita no longer works for my Nepali family. About a week after coming back to the States I received a message from my host brother informing me that Gita no longer worked for the family. Frustration set in. Throughout the time I spent in my Nepali house I was consistently told Gita was a part of the family. As a part of the culture, Nepalese people, as a whole, avoid conflict and with awareness being raised about caste oppression the story is the same in most households: she is your sister or he is your brother. Tragically, the moment in which my little “shadow girl” friend, Gita no longer provided the desired chores in the household she was referred to not as family, but merely as a worker. My relationship with Gita was among the strongest I had in Nepal, and yet there was always this looming fact that the culture told her she was lower in status than where I stood. Nepal as a nation is in a place for change; the country has recognized the caste system has an oppressive structure, but the people are not ready for its elimination. Organizations such as FEDO or the Women’s Skill Development Organization (a fair trade organization) are pushing for change and slowly are seeing results. If there is to be hope for the future of a fair and inclusive Nepal, international organizations must understand the importance of the complexity of the caste system. Further must look to collaborate with local people in order to assist them to effectively enact the change they believe best for themselves.



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