They are a non-homogenous group, speak different languages and have different cultures. What they have in common is their experience of caste discrimination and exclusion on the grounds of untouchability, leading to threats, intimidation, physical assault, forced eviction and displacement. The National Dalit Commission defines the Dalit community as ‘a community that has traditionally been subjected to untouchability and caste-based discrimination, and also has been extremely marginalized, excluded or deprived in social, cultural, political, education, administrative or economic sectors and deprived of social justice.’ The commission identifies 26 distinct Dalit sub-castes and divides these into two broad categories: Hill Dalits and Madhesi Dalits.
In Nepal, land is the primary economic resource, and hence a key asset in terms of influence in society. Landlessness is widespread among Dalits, especially in the Tarai, and traditional cultural practices have resulted in many Dalits becoming bonded. As food security is directly associated with landholding, Dalits often suffer severe food deficiency.
Dalits also experience significant lack of access to education and poor health conditions. The literacy rate for Dalit men is 60% compared 81% nationally and 93% for Brahmin/Chhetri men. Of Dalit women, 85% in the Tarai and 59% in the Hills are not educated; this compares to 53% of all women in Nepal. Only 1.6 percent of those holding technical and professional jobs nationally are Dalits. Dalits also lag behind other groups on almost all health indicators. Under-five mortality is 90 deaths per 1,000 live births among Dalits compared to 50 for the entire country. Only 11% of deliveries are attended by a skilled birth attendant among Dalits, less than half the share among Brahmin/Chhetri women. Delivery by a skilled birth attendant amongst Madhesi Dalits is just 5%.
Dalit representation is low in all state institutions including the civil service, even as political representation gains were made in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. Compared to having almost no Dalits in Parliament prior, about 50 of the 601 Constituent Assembly members were Dalits; still, at 8.3% their representation is short of their proportion of the population about 13%. Dalits face serious challenges in accessing justice for incidents of caste-based discrimination. Until the appellate court appointed one Dalit in 2009, there were no Dalit judges in the entire judiciary. Over 200 discriminatory legal provisions affecting Dalits are still in place. The low representation of Dalits in political and decision-making bodies obstructs their development and empowerment since they are unable to influence policy-making or ensure effective implementation of existing policies.
The state has made several efforts to eliminate caste-based discrimination and improve the fate of Dalits. Many laws have been reformed, but implementation has not always been effective. The Interim Constitution seeks to build a nation with multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-religious and multicultural characteristics, ensuring equality and ending untouchability and racial discrimination. The enactment of the Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability Crime and Punishment Act 2011 is a significant achievement. It prohibits caste-based discrimination and untouchability practices in both public and private spheres and increases punishments for public officials found responsible for discrimination. The act provides a solid platform for all stakeholders to work towards elimination of caste-based discrimination and untouchability.