Despite being prohibited in most countries, slavery is widespread in South Asia. Both bonded and forced labour are commonplace in certain industries, meaning that access to labour rights are denied. Forced and bonded labour are contemporary forms of slavery, and they are prohibited under international law.
In Mauritania there is even a ‘slave caste’, estimated to make up 18% of the population. Most of these are the Haratine, born into slavery.
Dalit women suffer multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination based on gender and caste, often in highly patriarchal societies. As a result, they are a key target of violence and rape, with little recourse to the justice system and thus an easy target. Many are born into modern slavery or temple prostitution, and 98% of those forced into manual scavenging are Dalit women. It is only recently that they have begun to fight back.
Child labour is a common theme for disadvantaged Dalit children, who are frequently used as modern slaves, and can be found in the cottonseed, textile and brick kiln industries, to name but a few. As discrimination in the educational system is rife, illiteracy and drop-out rates are disproportionately higher for Dalit youths. Even within universities, Scheduled Castes are often targeted and suicide rates are high.
Manual scavenging, the act of cleaning excrement by hand, is undertaken by an estimated 1.3 million Dalits in India, despite being banned in 1993. Pay is usually below minimum wage and often leads to debt bondage as scavengers cannot afford to survive without loans. It is a role traditionally ascribed to Dalit women, who are obligated to empty the dry latrines with their bare hands.
Lower castes often continue to be discriminated against even after they have stopped this work, and alternative employment is difficult to find. The campaign to end manual scavenging in India has been gaining momentum.
Although most countries have legislation to protect Dalits, there is systemic discrimination in access to employment, education, health, budgetary allocations for Dalit development and in the criminal justice administration system. Perpetrators often enjoy impunity for acts of exclusion and heinous crimes against Dalits, and many cases are never registered due to threats by dominant castes and negligence of the police.
Dalits are often denied the right to equal political participation. Lack of education and wealth restricts their ability to become members of parliament or to have their voices heard. Furthermore, Dalit activists have often been arrested as part of political crackdowns on any hint of dissent or uprising from the lower castes.