CASTE SYSTEM IN NEPAL
The caste system — an elaborate and complex Hindu-based social system that divides society based of occupation, endogamy, culture, social class, tribe affiliation and political power — is very much in evidence in largely Hindu Nepal as it is in Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh, and largely Buddhist Sri Lanka. Arguably it is less strong and defining as the caste system in India but is stronger than the caste system in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Caste-like systems are mainly associated with South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan) but similar systems can found in Japan (where the Burakumin occupied the bottom of a social hierarchy) and Africa.
There are many castes and a large number of caste and secular hierarchies in Nepal. The caste system is strongest in middle hills and the Terai plains. The Tibetan-based communities in the high mountain areas do not follow the caste system per se except in places where they are absorbed into larger Hindu-based communities. Tibetan peoples have traditionally been Buddhists and Buddhism was founded in part in ancient times as a rejection of caste ideas in Hinduism. The Buddha was born in Lumbini, in southern Nepal. The indigenous tribal Nepalese did not have a caste system. It was introduced by Hindu Indian migrants, whose descendants now make up the majority of Nepal’s population. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel]
Caste affects family life, food, dress, occupations and culture and can determine a person’s way of life. Certain family names are associated with specific castes, with some being the name of the caste groups. Dhakal is a Brahman name. Karki is Chhetri one. Kamis are smiths; Gwalas are livestock herders; and Hajums are barbers.
Caste Divisions in Nepal
No single, widely acceptable definition can be advanced for the caste system. Bishop and others, however, view caste as a multifaceted status hierarchy composed of all members of society, with each individual ranked within the broad, fourfold Hindu class (varna, or color) divisions, or within the fifth class of Dalits (untouchables) — outcastes viewed as socially polluted. The fourfold caste divisions are Brahman (priests and scholars), Kshatriya or Chhetri (rulers and warriors), Vaisya (or Vaisaya, merchants and traders), and Sudra (farmers, artisans, and laborers).Sudra communities, many of them laborer castes, include Kamis (Iron-smiths), Sunars (Gold-smiths), Lohars (Iron smiths), Vishwakarma (Drivers), Nepali (ancestry unfounded), Sarki (Cobbler) and Damahi (tailor/musician). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
These Pahari caste divisions based on the Hindu system are not strictly upheld by the Newars. They have their own caste hierarchy, which, they claim, is parallel in caste divisions to the Pahari Hindu system. In each system, each caste (jati) is ideally an endogamous group in which membership is both hereditary and permanent. The only way to change caste status is to undergo Sanskritization. Sanskritization can be achieved by migrating to a new area and by changing one's caste status and/or marrying across the caste line, which can lead to the upgrading or downgrading of caste, depending on the spouse's caste. However, given the rigidity of the caste system, intercaste marriage carries a social stigma, especially when it takes place between two castes at the extreme ends of the social spectrum. *
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Hindu castes and Buddhist and animist ethnic groups were historically collapsed into a single caste hierarchy. At the top are high-caste Hindus. Below them are alcohol-drinking (matwali ) castes, which include Mongolian ethnic groups. At the bottom are untouchable Hindu castes that have traditionally performed occupations considered defiling by higher castes. The Newars of the Kathmandu Valley have a caste system that has been absorbed into the national caste hierarchy. Historically, caste was loosely correlated with occupational specialization. Tailors, smiths, and cobblers were the lowest, untouchable castes, and priests and warriors were the two highest Hindu castes. However, the large majority of people are farmers, an occupation that is not caste-specific. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
History of the Caste System in Nepal
The government and the economy has been dominated for many centuries by high-caste Brahmans, Thakuris and Chhetris. Descendants of the Ranas, who ruled Nepal of 104 years until 1951, are members of the powerful Thakuri caste. Despite the fact that castes were based on various professions, untouchability evolved later.
The Hindu-based caste system found in Nepal today is modeled after the ancient and orthodox Brahmanic system of the Indian plains. The caste system did not exist prior to the arrival of Indo-Aryans. Its establishment became the basis of the emergence of the feudalistic economic structure of Nepal: the high-caste Hindus began to appropriate lands — particularly lowlands that were more easily accessible, more cultivatable, and more productive — including those belonging to the existing tribal people, and introduced the system of individual ownership. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Even though the cultural and religious rigidity of the caste system slowly has been eroding, its introduction into Nepal was one of the most significant influences stemming from the migration of the Indo-Aryan people into the hills. The migrants from the north later were incorporated into the Hindu caste system, as defined by Indo-Aryan migrants, who quickly controlled the positions of power and authority. Tibetan migrants did not practice private ownership; their system was based on communal ownership.*
Other ethnic groups are not formally part of the caste system but have been incorporated into it. As a rule they are placed somewhere in the middle: not having the privileges and duties of the high castes but not being treated as poorly as the lower castes. Many of these ethnic groups have incorporated elements of Hinduism into their belief systems and respect Hindu customs if for no other reason than to not offend Hindus. Some have their own caste-like hierarchy systems.
Caste Privileges and Power in Nepal
Caste often determines access to land, political power and ability to command human labor. The Brahman and Kshatriya are the highest castes and they have traditionally had access to fertile lands, power and authority. The Vaisyas were second and gained wealth by engaging in business. The Sudras and the Dalits (untouchables) were at the bottom. All non-Hindus, especially Muslims because they tended to live in areas where Hindus also lived, fell under the Sudra category. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Historically, members of the highest castes have owned the majority of land and enjoyed the greatest political and economic privileges. Members of lower castes have been excluded from political representation and economic opportunities. The untouchable castes were not permitted to own land, and their civil liberties were circumscribed by law. Caste discrimination is officially illegal but has not disappeared. In 1991, 80 percent of positions in the civil service, army, and police were occupied by members of the two highest castes. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
“Historically, caste and class status paralleled each other, with the highest castes having the most land, capital, and political influence. The lowest castes could not own property or receive an education. Although caste distinctions are no longer supported by law, caste relations have shaped present-day social stratification: Untouchables continue to be the poorest sector of society, while the upper castes tend to be wealthy and politically dominant. While land is still the principal measure of wealth, some castes that specialize in trade and commerce have fared better under modern capitalism than have landowning castes. Changes in the economic and political system have opened some opportunities for members of historically disadvantaged castes.”
“Caste and ethnic groups are often identifiable by both physical traits and styles of dress and ornamentation. These symbols of ethnic identity along with distinctive forms of music, dance, and cuisine, continue to be important. The culture of caste Hindus is the national "prestige culture." In a process of "Sanskritization," members of diverse groups have acquired the customs, tastes, and habits of the ruling elite. Westernization is vying with Sanskritization as a cultural influence, and the ability to speak English is a mark of prestige and an asset in the job market. In cities, most men and an increasing number of women wear Western clothes. In the past, status was vested in the ownership of land and livestock; modern status symbols include motorcycles, cars, fashionable clothing, televisions, and computers. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
There are so many Brahmans and Chhetris in Nepal that the Sudra are often treated like Untouchables. They are not allowed to enter the homes of high caste members or eat from the same plates or drink from the same cups. Brahman priests officiate over their marriage ceremonies. Untouchables and members are treated the same or even worse. Members of non-Hindu ethnic groups often treat the Sudra castes with the same disdain as upper caste members.
Pollution and Rules and Behaviors Defined by the Caste System in Nepal
Caste determines an individual's behavior, obligations, and expectations. Violating the rules invites certain punishment such as ostracism. Inter-caste marriage is almost impossible as it carries a social disgrace, especially when it takes place between two castes that are far apart in ranking. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel]
The caste of an individual determines his ritual status, purity, and pollution — all important concepts in Hinduism. The issue of purity and being impure exists not only between higher and lower castes but also within one’s caste community. A person of higher caste is declared temporarily impure after relative or family member dies. Women is regarded as impure when she is having her period or has given birth to a child at least in part because blood us regarded as impure. Impure people are kept in a separate place in the house and generally not touched. Drinking water and food consumed or touched by an impure person is avoided. Impure food is thrown away and not consumed.
Nepalese go through great lengths not to touch their lips to a drinking cup (they pour the water into their mouth) so as not to pollute the water consumed by other castes. Since rice is cooked with water there are special rules on who can eat with whom. Some upper castes only eat rice they prepare themselves.
Ideas About Pollution and Caste Discrimination in Nepal
People belonging to a lower castes are regarded impure by higher caste people. They are discriminated against. Higher caste people sometimes go through purification rituals such as being sprinkled by holy water if they touch or are polluted by a lower caste person. Holy water is water taken from the Ganges or another sacred river or water that been sanctified by a priest or has been purified with a special metal (gold). Such water is also used in blessing people, places, and objects and repelling evil. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel]
Ideas about pollution means that the lower caste people are considered polluted by higher caste people and thus they not allowed to touch or stay close to higher caste people. They have traditionally been prevented of entering temples, funeral places, restaurants, shop and other public places and been prevented from using public drinking water taps and wells. They are also barred from entering the homes of higher castes. These customs are still followed among some people and in some places.
Members of lower castes suffer from widespread discrimination. Some are entrapped in bonded labor situations that are at least partly the result of caste divisions. Senior positions in politics and the civil service are dominated by the higher castes such as Brahmans and Chhetri. The Mulki Ain (Legal) Codes of 1859 codified the caste system, defined rank according to caste, with the Brahman Chhetri at the top, and stated which activities were proper for each caste group and defined the punishments or breaking caste rules. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Decline of the Caste System in Nepal and Efforts to Get Rid of It
With the advent of democracy in 1950, social discriminations started breaking down especially in the major cities. Caste based discrimination in the public places and government service especially in the cities is almost extinct, but it still exists in the rural villages. However, with the development of tourism as one of the major industry, the people in the rural villages have stopped treating the tourists as untouchables. Moreover, according to the new constitution of Nepal, any discrimination based on castes, gender or religion, especially against Dalits, is punishable offense. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel]
In 1963, the Mulki Ain was revised outlawing the caste system and guaranteeing all citizens equal treatment under the law. But clearly a system that has been entrenched for centuries as the caste system has is not going to be suddenly eliminated by a legal code and continues to be strong today. The 1990 Constitution bars discrimination on the basis of sex, religion and race but the laws and regulations to enforce that have not been put into effect. and there is nothing that specifically bans discrimination on the basis of caste.
In 2001, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur said that he would try to get ride of the caste system in Nepal. In August 2001, the Nepalese government passed a law banning discrimination against Dalits (Untouchables) such as preventing them from entering temples. Deuba said that such discrimination “will be considered a crime punishable by a severe sentence” but didn’t say what the punishment would be.
The Maoist rebels said they would try to get rid of the caste system. The 2015 Nepal Constitution, enacted after the Maoists became part of the government, states: “No discrimination shall be made against any citizen in the application of general laws on grounds of religion, color, caste, tribe, sex, sexual orientation, bodily condition, disability, status of health, marital status, pregnancy, financial status, origin, language or region, ideological conviction or any of these. ..1) No person shall be discriminated against as untouchable and subjected to discrimination in any form, on grounds of caste, race, community, origin, occupation or bodily condition in any public or private place. 2) In producing or distributing any goods, serves or facilities, no person belonging to any particular caste or tribe shall be prevented from purchasing or acquiring such goods, services facilities nor shall such goods, services facilities or facilities be sold or distributed only to the persons belonging to any particular caste or tribe. 3) No such act as to purport to demonstrate any superiority or inferiority of the person or persons belonging to any caste, tribe, origin or bodily condition or to justify social discrimination on the ground of caste or race or to publicize ideology based on racial superiority or hatred or to encourage caste discrimination in any manner shall be allowed.
Dalits in Nepal
"Untouchables" (Dalits) are generally defined as people belonging to castes that rank below the Sudra varna — the lowest of the four major castes (varnas): the Brahmans (priestly caste); Kshatriyas (warrior caste), the Vaisyas (farmer caste); and Sudras (laborers). Dalits have traditionally been regarded as having such low status they don't even register on the caste system. The term “Untouchable” was first used in 1909 in a lecture by the Maharaja Sayaji Rao III of Baroda to describe the primary features of the group’s relationship with other castes. [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, June 2003]
Untouchables don't like the being called Untouchables. They prefer to be called Dalits, meaning “ground down” and "oppressed." Their low rank is based in on the general belief, often associated with Hinduism, that traditional occupations dealing with death, excrement, blood or dirt—such as butchers, leather workers, scavengers, latrine cleaners and street cleaners—are polluting to other castes and touching them should be avoided. Implicit in this construct is the belief that Dalits deserve their lot in life because they are in the position they are in because of karma and as a punishment for sins committed in earlier lives. Untouchability is not unique to South Asia. Dalit-like groups can be found in Japan (the Burakumin), Korea (the Paekching), Tibet (the Ragyappa) and Burma (Pagoda slaves).
More than twenty Dalit caste groups exist in Nepal.Anita Shrestha of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center wrote: “ Identifying a caste group is problematic. It requires a study of diverse cultures of different ethnic groups and geographical areas. Thus even the government classification system is open to question. In view of the still unsettled system of classifying Dalit caste groups, estimating the Dalit population is difficult. One estimate puts the number of Dalit people at 13.09 percent out of the total population, with Kami the largest group with 29.57 percent and Halkhar the smallest group with 0.12 percent. Dalit women comprise 51 percent of the total Dalit population. [Source: Anita Shrestha, Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center, Focus, December 2002]
Discrimination Against Dalits in Nepal
Dalits are discriminated against in Nepal in various ways. They are denied entrance to public amenities, denied economic opportunities, and are generally neglected by the state and society. Anita Shrestha of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center wrote: “Dalits are discriminated against on the basis of caste and “untouchability.” They are not only discriminated by the so-called higher caste people in the Hindu system, but also by people within the same caste. Dalit women suffer much more than Dalit men. Two studies show that most Dalits suffer from discriminatory practices involving food and drink (38.9 percent) and prohibition of entry into houses, temples and other public places (28.3 percent). Both studies show that incidence of caste-based discrimination is higher in the western region than in the eastern region of the country. It means that the form and extent of discrimination against Dalits are positively correlated with the extent of development of the area where they reside. [Source: Anita Shrestha, Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center, Focus, December 2002]
“Dalits suffer from a number of atrocities such as battering, mental torture, rape, break-up of inter-caste marriage, false allegations, etc. Higher-caste people do not hesitate to beat Dalit women in public places, if they are found to break laws, or norms and values of the Hindu tradition.
“Social and cultural discrimination: Dalits are discriminated in the religious and cultural spheres. They are not allowed to practice Hindu rituals, norms and values in the same manner as other castes. To escape from this discrimination, they converted into Christianity. And yet even within their Christian communities only those belonging to higher castes can become religious leaders or occupy key positions in the church.
“Traditional caste-based occupation and forced labor: Dalits have been relegated to do caste-based work as black/goldsmith, tailors, shoemakers and street cleaners, all are considered of low social status. Poverty and lack of other means of livelihood force the Dalits to continue their traditional occupations. Dalit women and children are also forced to work in the households of their landlords. They do not get justifiable wage for their labor. If they do not work for others, they work as help of their husbands in the traditional jobs of Dalits. Those working in Haliya Pratha (bonded labor) or Khala Pratha (forced labor) are not even earning from their work. They may get food grains.
“Dalits who are able to get a wage-earning job suffer from unfair wage system. They get much less than their non-Dalit counterparts. Dalit women, on the other hand, get lesser wage than Dalit men. Lack of modern technology skills and financial resources prevent them from getting employed in new industries or trade in the market. Dalits who change from traditional occupation to wage labor do not therefore necessarily improve their economic conditions.
“Discrimination in education: Untouchability is practiced in schools, be they government- or NGO- supported schools. Teachers do not take care of their Dalit students. In remote areas of Nepal, Dalit students could not sit beside the so-called high-caste students. There are documented cases in NGO-supported schools of isolating Dalit students when eating school-supplied food, and treating them badly. Scholarships for Dalit students are inadequate if not irregular. Likewise, the so-called high-caste teachers do not want Dalits to become teachers because they do not want to do the traditional gesture of giving respect to them. They also do not want to eat and drink together with them as is the custom among teachers. Competent Dalit teachers are discouraged from occupying higher executive positions in schools.
Exclusion of Dalits and Denial of Entry
Anita Shrestha of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center wrote: “Dalits are denied entry into the houses of higher castes, temples, hotels/restaurants, teashops, food factories, dairy farms and milk collection centers, among others. They can go to schools, offices and work places. However, there are newspaper reports that in some schools in Jumla region, Dalit students sit outside the classrooms. The denial of entry into private houses of higher caste people extends to their cowsheds in the case of the far western Nepal. They have a belief that if a Dalit enters the cowsheds and touches the rope of cows or buffaloes and the water pot, the animals will die or will give less quantity of milk. [Source: Anita Shrestha, Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center, Focus, December 2002]
“The prohibition on entering temples prevents the Dalits from participating in the religious activities inside the temples. They have to be content with worshipping outside the temple building. Dalit women who enter the temple are humiliated by the temple priests as well as by higher-caste people. A Dalit who drinks tea in a teashop has to wash the cup used otherwise the proprietor will beat him/her up.
“Government officials generally ignore, and at times ill-treat, Dalits seeking services from the government. Treated like second-class citizens, services are generally delayed. They are also abused by addressing them with disrespectful words (such as using the word tan instead of Hajur or Tapain).
“The so-called “social boycott,” a practice of exclusion of people from their families and group, is normally resorted to in cases of Inter-caste marriages, where a higher-caste man marries a lower-caste woman. It also happens when non-Dalit women marry Dalit men. In both cases, the women bear the brunt of the disapproval of the marriage;
“Key positions in political parties are mostly held by higher-caste people. Dalits, prevented from holding these positions, are always discouraged from exercising their political rights. Political leaders pay “lip service” to Dalit communities in order to collect votes. Political parties mobilize the Dalits only to serve the interest of the party. Political parties, like Nepal Dalit Sang (Nepali Congress) and Nepal Dalit Jatiyal Mukti Samaj of the Communist Party of Nepal/United Marxist League, are considered pro-Dalits. But these parties never encourage Dalits to become candidates themselves, resulting in few Dalit representatives in the National Assembly. There are only four Dalit representatives nominated in the parliament. The voices of the Dalits are hardly heard, and the representatives are instead used by different political parties. “Representation of Dalit women in party politics is almost negligible. Though the constitution of Nepal has reserved seats for women, which is limited to 5 percent of the total seats for national and local elections, political parties deny any seat to Dalit women. At the same time, Dalit women are not empowered to use the opportunity granted by the Constitution.
Obstacles to Improving Dalit Rights in Nepal
Although Nepal banned untouchability in 1955, the practice remains deeply rooted. Anita Shrestha of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center wrote: “The struggle of the Dalits in Nepal against discrimination suffers from a number of obstacles. Unity among the Dalit organizations is a big obstacle. They all share a common vision: equitable and just society for the Dalits. But with Dalit caste hierarchy and intra-caste discrimination, they lack unity to be able to achieve the goal. Coordination between the Dalit movement and other movements like women’s movement and the indigenous people's movement is lacking. Without solidarity among them, the Dalit movement cannot be strengthened. [Source: Anita Shrestha, Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center, Focus, December 2002]
“Communication gap between local communities and central government is another obstacle. The eight-point program, launched by the previous Prime Minister in June 2001 supposedly meant to eliminate untouchability by helping the empowerment and economic upliftment of the Dalits, is an example. Punishment for caste-based discrimination is highlighted in this program. But since the Dalit communities are unaware of this program, the Dalits do not benefit from it.
“The 1990 Constitution of Nepal prohibits any form of discrimination on the basis of caste, race, sex and religion. Such forms of discrimination are punishable by law. But the reality is that all these forms of discrimination are still in practice. Ex-Minister Padma Narayan Chaudhary’s adverse reaction in the case of the Chamar social boycott in the Terai district regarding the Chamars’ collective decision to stop disposing animal carcasses, a dirty and stigmatized occupation, is an example. If the leaders or policymakers themselves prevent the implementation of laws, how can they make proper laws with appropriate punishment in case of violations?
“Dalit women development programs of the government or donor agencies are elaborated without the participation of the Dalit women themselves. This leads to the implementation of development programs that are not applicable to the Dalits.
“The Dalit problem cannot be resolved overnight. Its solution requires a combination of action on the part of the Dalit communities, the government, and the political parties. The Dalit issues should now be treated as political issues that deserve the attention of government bureaucrats and politicians. Laws against the discrimination of the Dalits should be properly enforced, and government programs for uplifting the economic and social status of the Dalits should be fully implemented.
2015 Constitution on Dalits
The 2015 Nepal Constitution, enacted after the Maoists became part of the government, states: 4) Discriminating against as untouchable or touchable in any form shall not be allowed in workplace. 5) All forms of acts of untouchability and discriminatory treatment contrary to this article shall be punishable as serious social offence, and the victim shall be entitled to such compensation as determined by law.
- Right of Dalits: (p.13): 1) Person from Dalit community shall have right to get employment in civil service, army, police and all other agencies and areas of the State on the principle of proportional inclusive principles. Special provision shall be made for empowerment, representation and participation of Dalit community in public service and other sectors of employment as provided by the law.
2) Provision of free education including scholarship shall be made from primary level to higher education for Dalit students as determined by law. Special provision shall be made for Dalits in technical and professional higher education in accordance with the law. 3) Special provision shall be made according to the law to provide health and social security for the Dalits. 4) Dalit community shall have the right to preserve and develop their traditional occupation, knowledge, skill and technology. State shall provide necessary skills and resources by prioritizing Dalits in the modern professions related to the traditional occupations of Dalits.
(5) State shall once provide land to landless Dalits by making necessary laws. 6) State shall make provision of housing to homeless Dalits by making necessary laws. 7) The facilities provided by this article for Dalit community should be justifiably distributed among Dalit women, men and all communities on proportional basis.
Badis of Nepal: the Untouchables of the Untouchables
Few people have suffered more under the caste system more than the Badis of southwestern Nepal, sometimes called untouchables among the untouchables. Their women often work as prostitutes for a dollar a trick because they have no other way to make a living. Mark Magnier wrote in Los Angeles Times: “Badis trace their roots to the Licchavi dynasty in what is now northern India's Bihar state. In the 14th century, the tribe moved to Nepal, according to a research paper by Thomas Cox, an anthropologist at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University. There they received land and money for providing concubines to small-time rulers in western Nepal. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2011]
“After 1950, local royalty lost power in a pro-democracy movement, and the Badis saw their clientele disappear. The tribe eventually turned to prostitution. “With economic and social changes, their status went down and down," said Ghanashyam Dangi, founder of Rapti Vidyamandir Management College in Ghorahi. "Eventually they became common prostitutes and untouchables." Tatulam Nepali, 75, renowned for her singing and dancing, proudly recalls performing for the royal family in Kathmandu. “Three hundred years ago we sang and danced for kings," she said. "Now people misuse us, force us into prostitution. But our performance culture should be revived."
“Limited education among Badis has hindered greater respectability even as the caste system slowly loses its grip. And most of those who try to break out to run tea stalls, tobacco shops or hair salons say customers know they're Badis and refuse to pay, abusing them or boycotting their business. “You can change laws," Nirmal Nepali said. "It's a lot harder to change the culture."
“The spider's silk entrapping the Badis is strong and often subtle. For years, children born of prostitutes without known fathers were unable to secure the national ID card that is needed for schools, government welfare programs, respectable jobs. In 2005, the Supreme Court ordered the government to extend formal citizenship to Nepal's estimated 40,000 to 70,000 Badis, establish retraining and alternative employment programs and extend grants to vulnerable families. Bureaucrats stalled until activists threatened in 2007 to undress publicly in Kathmandu, embarrassing the government into setting up the programs. But little has changed, say the Badis, who blame inertia, corruption and Nepal's polarized government.
“Manu Nepali, 18, whose mother and sister are prostitutes, hoped to raise his family's fortunes by becoming a driver. "I was about 13 before I fully realized what my mother did," he said. "The whole family's been dependent on her body." His unsuccessful bid to get an ID card cost him half the $200 government grant money, which the family had hoped to use for a house or education. He spent weeks shuttling among bureaucracies before he eventually gave up, as do many in the largely landless, impoverished and illiterate community. Instead he became a common laborer, one of the few jobs open to uneducated Badi men.
Badi Women Prostitutes
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Bina Badi tends her garden behind a picket fence. Goats leap. Boys fly kites. Water buffalo laze in the river. Idyllic, except for the used condoms that litter the road and the fact that men have visited her house virtually every day for 28 of her 38 years to enjoy her body, and she sees no escape. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2011]
Badi women have for decades been born into a life of prostitution. “I started before menstruation, probably around 10," said the round-faced Bina Badi, wearing a flowered dress and gold earrings. "The first time was traumatic. I was terrified. I cried, so afraid." Bina said her parents didn't force her, although they quietly encouraged her to follow tradition at a time when she was too young to know to do otherwise. One daughter often financially supports several family members.
“Adding to Bina's indignity, many of the customers who pay $1 for sex — as many as 10 a day during festival times — are local politicians, businessmen, police officers. These luminaries from higher castes take advantage of her, she said, while shunning her in public, never once using their social position to counter the discrimination underpinning her fate. Opportunities for other work are so limited, she said, she feels the only way she can survive is through prostitution. “It's very entrenched," said Man Bahadur Chhetri, program director for the Nepal Youth Foundation.
Efforts to Improve the Lives of Badis
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Even Badis who have pulled themselves up in society give credit to prostitution. College-educated Nirmal Nepali, president of Dang's Badi Concerned Society, is among the few literate Badis here. His schooling was financed by his eldest sister, who worked for a decade as a prostitute from a room in the family home, encouraged by their parents who welcomed the income. “I owe everything to them," he said. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2011]
“Raising the community's sense of self-worth is a challenge in itself. Many Badi families welcome newborn girls for their earning potential, and some fathers even quit their menial jobs to live off their daughters once they're old enough to enter the "family business." The government grants aren't always dispensed fairly, Nepali said, with non-Badi officials often giving the money to their relatives and friends rather than to the neediest. Of the 1,200 Badi families in his district, only 295 have received stipends, he estimated. “The real beneficiaries aren't Badi," said his wife, Mira. "Or if they are, well-connected people get it rather than the single mothers, young girls, who really need it."
“Bina Badi, whose name is tattooed on her left fist, grew up in a dirt-poor family in which all four daughters became prostitutes. At one point, each of them married and seemed to free themselves. But they soon divorced and drifted back into prostitution. Their drum-maker father and housewife mother lived off their daughters' earnings, his craftsmanship largely unappreciated in the rush for electronics and cheap drum imports from Bangladesh. Bina Badi averages three or four customers a day. “We don't want to continue, but if we don't, we can't eat," she said. "The government should help us find other jobs."
“Although society is slowly changing, discrimination against Badis remains profound, she said, including prohibitions against using the same village pump, entering other people's homes, brushing against them. “For many years, I thought it was my fate to be a prostitute," she said. "Now I realize this system wasn't made by God. It was made by man."
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022