Untouchables and the other: Is there any hope for those living in the margins?

March 4, 2020
March 4, 2020

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Leaving an entire community behind, slows down the development of a whole nation. We claim equal rights through our constitution – but is it enough?

“I’m made to clean the school toilets every day. I have to sit separately from my classmates. Playground bullying is an everyday thing. Doctors do not even treat me the way they treat other patients. People call me ‘untouchable’.” – Kamal, 8

“I know I look like a boy, but I don’t feel like one. This makes my parents feel ashamed of me. The neighbours think that if their children play with me, they will become transgender like me.” – Salam, 12

These human rights violations are daily occurrences for over 5.5 million people in Bangladesh. This is the number of people estimated to constitute the Dalit and transgender communities.

This figure however, is ambiguous. It is thought to be much more in reality.

The Dalit community is not a caste or a group of castes, but a population marginalised to the extreme, partly by religious sanctions and partly by socio-economic deprivation, where they are only permitted to work classified jobs such as sweeping and cleaning. They are commonly called ‘untouchables’.

On the other hand, people belonging to the third gender community are marginalised due to their sexual identity. The number of third gender people, according to the Department of Social Welfare Survey (2015), is only 10,000, however community representatives claim that the figure is much higher. Among them, we don’t have any specific identified number of transgender people. This community faces multi-layered marginalisation. They are unable to contribute to the overall development, because as a society, we have failed to be inclusive.

In November 2013, the Government of Bangladesh recognised third gender as a separate gender – ‘other’ – on identification documents including national passports and identity cards. Six years on, little has changed in how society perceives and treats them.

“Public toilets are either for males or for females. We get harassed if we enter either of the two. Is there any place for us? Does terming us as ‘other’ solve the problem?” – Nodi Hijra.

But there is no such law or initiative for transgender community. Social acceptance for the transgender community is still very low. They face humiliation and discrimination in every sector – they are not allowed in schools, nor welcomed in hospitals. Even something as basic as accessing public transport can be a daunting task.

Whenever we think of a person of third gender, we imagine an aggressive individual spewing inappropriate words. A Dalit, on the other hand, reminds us of a sweeper or cleaner. We have rarely seen or heard of a Dalit or trans gender individual in a respectable job. This is all because of the way we have systematically marginalised these communities over generations. When an entire community is forced to do classified jobs only, it is very likely its people will lose hope of ever improving their condition.

People belonging to the transgender are more vulnerable as their families often abandon them. The Dalit community faces similar problems; they are viewed as someone from the lowest caste, and hence, untouchable.

Key challenges for Dalits in Bangladesh include lack of access to education, health and employment, leading them towards a perpetual state of extreme poverty. It must be noted that there is no representation from this community in national decision making, making it almost impossible to understand their challenges and take appropriate actions, especially when there are multiple sub-groups in the community.

If we want to build a world that works for everyone, we must ensure meaningful inclusion of the groups living in the margins of our society. What is the way forward for this to be possible? For starters, we need a clear picture of who is in danger of being left behind and data that represents accurately on what their needs are.

A global platform called ‘Leave No One Behind (LNOB)’ works for the betterment of marginalised communities all over the world. The Bangladesh chapter of this platform is led by BRAC, along with eight other partner NGOs, together who are committed to ensure social inclusion of marginalised communities through making their voices heard and count.

The platform recently organised a national summit, where representatives from eight marginalised groups gathered together for a daylong interactive discussion. They shared their key challenges and discussed the changes they wanted to see. The groups were joined by policymakers, media, and development partners at the sharing session, who made commitments to ensure that inclusion happens.

Article 28-1 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh (1972) protects the rights of all individuals. “The state shall not discriminate against any human being on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.” How much of this is actually practised?

Leaving an entire community behind, slows down the development of a whole nation. We have created laws which recognise some people as ‘other’, and we claim equal rights through our constitution – but is it enough? Only strict and proper implementation of our constitution can bring positive changes to the status quo.

We need to work on changing the stigma to create wider social acceptance. We dream of a world free from all forms of exploitation and discrimination where everyone has the equal opportunity to realise their potential. All of this will remain a dream if we do not include these marginalised groups to the discourse.


Shahrin Ahsan is Manager, Advocacy for Social Change, BRAC. Kriti Promiti Reza is Intern, Advocacy for Social Change, BRAC.

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