More than 260 million people across the world are still victims of human rights abuses due to caste-based discrimination, United Nations independent experts warned today, urging South Asian countries to strengthen legislation to protect them.
“Caste-based discrimination remains widespread and deeply rooted, its victims face structural discrimination, marginalization and systematic exclusion, and the level of impunity is very high,” the group of experts said. “This form of discrimination entails gross and wide-ranging human rights abuses – including brutal forms of violence.”
People who are considered of low caste in South Asia are known as ‘Dalits’ or ‘untouchables.’ In many countries, they face marginalization, social and economic exclusion, segregation in housing, limited access to basic services including water and sanitation and employment, and work in conditions similar to slavery.
The experts said that Dalit women and girls are particularly vulnerable and face multiple forms of discrimination and violence, including sexual abuse. Children are also at high risk of being sold and sexually exploited.
Two years ago, Nepal adopted the ‘Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability Bill’, a landmark law that protects the rights of Dalits. More recently, the British Government decided in April that the Equality Act would cover caste discrimination to protect Dalits in diaspora communities.
While these are positive steps to eliminate caste-based discrimination, the experts expressed concern about a serious lack of implementation in countries where legislation already exists, and called for the effective application of laws, policies and programmes protecting those affected by this type of discrimination.
“We urge other caste-affected States to adopt legislation to prevent caste-based discrimination and violence and punish perpetrators of such crimes, and call on world governments to endorse and implement the UN Draft Principles and Guidelines for the Effective Elimination of Discrimination Based on Work and Descent,” the experts said.
“Political leadership, targeted action and adequate resources should be devoted to resolving the long-standing problems, discrimination and exclusion faced by Dalits and similarly affected communities in the world.”
The experts also expressed their hope that the post-2015 development agenda will include specific goals for the advancement of Dalits, stressing that caste-based discrimination is a major structural factor underlying poverty.
“Their specific needs require tailored action to lift them out of poverty and close the inequality gap between them and the rest of society,” they said. “No one should be stigmatized; no one should be considered ‘untouchable’.”
Among the experts voicing their concerns include those dealing with minority issues; violence against women; contemporary forms of slavery; and racism. Independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council and work in an unpaid capacity.