We call ourselves a tolerant country, claim to be developing socially and believe our laws on equal rights make us progressive. Yet we still preach prejudice values to the future generations, are we hypocrites or are we pretenders?
So this is my third week working with VSO team here in Lamjung. Throughout the past couple of weeks I’ve familiarized myself quite well with the community and have a good idea of its cultural and social construct. The faces I pass by on my daily commutes from placement to placement have become familiar. People here react kindly to strangers, the pleasant bombardment of ‘Hi, hello, Namaste’ has made forging friendships in this new environment easy, it also reflects how strongly the community has held its values on hospitality.
This small village by the river side nestled by the lustrous green trees and magnificent hills almost feels like home now. As an educated outsider, under the umbrella of the VSO organization and with a respected family name I’m treated very well, probably with even more privilege than I deserve. However, every once in a while something happens that challenge one or more of the beliefs that I hold firmly in my moral compass.
When I encounter these incidents it reminds me that there is much more under the surface. So much left unsaid or unaddressed regarding prescribed roles and attitudes towards the different members of the social web. It makes me want to dig deeper, expose the roots and find a way to cut out the rot. A similar event inspired me to write this blog.
One evening, as I was taking my regular stroll around the village, I saw two kids sitting on a wooden bench by the roadside. They seemed to be waiting for someone, my curiosity drew me towards them. Followed by the usual greetings and asking about their whereabouts, I asked them their age, to which they replied ‘seven’ and ‘three’. Before I could ask anything more, the little one came to me and in the most innocent voice said “Hamro Buwa audai hunucha. Hami bus kurira”. When translated “Our Dad is coming on the next bus. We’re waiting for him”. I watched them eagerly wait for the bus and hoped that their wait would be over soon. The last bus came and no one got off at the stop. I felt a pang in my heart when I looked at those innocent, disappointed faces. Hoping that this wouldn’t turn out to be a movie moment, where the children keep waiting for a dad who never shows up, I inquired a little more about their Dad’s whereabouts. Well, this was nothing like a movie response, the reply that came took me back and for a moment I found myself completely stunned. The three year old looked into my eyes and said “Our dad has gone to kill that Kaami. My sister ran away to get married to him”. “Kaami” are one of the minority castes/groups in Nepal who are often called Dalit’s or untouchables. They are considered to be people that fall on the lower social strata of the class structure in Nepal and are downtrodden and discriminated. Caste based discrimination has been rife in Nepalese society for centuries, and is still present in the system. Caste discrimination is openly present within families and communities and even the laws created to prevent discrimination encourage the marginalization of certain castes. Creating a law specifically preventing “Dalit discrimination” only reminds those people that the country does not see them as equals. Laws created shouldn’t single out a certain group of people, equality shouldn’t be selective. The idea is to empower the downtrodden castes and foster self-confidence, not remind them that they are separate from the rest of our society.
This was not the first time I heard someone talk about castes with such prejudice, but hearing it come from such a young and innocent mind gave me a different sense of realization. I couldn’t respond, too young to understand the injustice of what they had said, I was in a difficult position where all my knowledge and passion for fighting inequality, was useless. At that moment, I couldn’t decide whether I should take it as an innocuous statement coming from a three year old or actually say something against it. I felt appalled and helpless to see how entrenched these problems were in our society, to see such worthless social concepts ingrained into young minds. Imagine how much hatred and violence would grow if his perspectives were not changed. Imagine, how many other children with similar mindsets are shaping the next generation of our society. It is about high time that we take the front seat and stop waiting for time to fix everything. It’s time to bring out the activist in us and drive change.