Maiya, a 20-year-old Nepali girl, lives in Dadeldhura, an isolated district in the Himalayan foothills in the Far-Western Region of Nepal, about 350 miles west of the capital Kathmandu. Maiya goes to a local college. Every term her parents have to scrape together enough money to pay the fees—despite the existence of a government program specifically created to offer families like them financial support.
Maiya and her family are members of Nepal’s Dalit community, traditionally the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system. Today most still work in the low-wage, religiously taboo occupations to which the “untouchable” Dalits were traditionally restricted—including blacksmithing, tailoring, shoemaking, sanitation, and sex work.
Nearly one out of five Nepalis is classed as Dalit. Discontent over the range of societal inequalities in Nepal fueled the country’s decade-long conflict, which ended in 2006. Although discrimination based on caste is now illegal, it remains pervasive.
The problems facing Maiya and her family are a sign that new progressive policies in Kathmandu, such as scholarship support programs, are still struggling to reach those most in need.
The constitution of Nepal outlaws caste-based discrimination through the “Right against Untouchability and Racial Discrimination” and seeks to improve the status of Dalits, demanding “the proportional inclusion of Dalits in all organs of the state structure.” There is also a separate 2011 law criminalizing a range of caste-based discrimination and untouchability. But ingrained discrimination is a powerful barrier to overcome.
Faced with these challenges, the Lawyers’ National Campaign for Elimination of Caste Discrimination (LANCAU), an Open Society grantee, is working with Dalit communities to use the existing laws to challenge caste discrimination, as well as gender-based violence.
Finding a local lawyer to take on these issues in the remote and impoverished Far-Western Region is exceedingly difficult. Lawyers often don’t want to work on cases outside court, and they are not always well suited to tackle community-level problems.
Instead, LANCAU is using a combination of lawyers and community-based paralegals: eight community members in the Far-Western Region of Nepal have received in-depth legal training focused on the most pressing issues in their communities—from caste-based discrimination laws, family law, and criminal law to administrative regulations, such as the rights and entitlements available for Dalits from different government agencies. The paralegals hold regular community-level meetings to engage community members on these issues, answer questions, and respond to specific legal problems.
In 2013, Bhoj Sharki, a LANCAU paralegal, began holding such meetings in Maiya’s community in the Dadeldhura district. Sharki, like other LANCAU paralegals, initially set out to introduce himself to government officials in the district to better understand existing government programs and to establish a working relationship with these officials. During one such meeting, Sharki spoke with officials at the district’s education office and found that government funds had been allocated to support Dalit females to pursue education in the district.
Sharki was studying at one of the district’s colleges at the time, so he then asked the administration whether the funds allocated to support Dalit education had been disbursed to his Dalit classmates. The administration replied that there was no allocation specifically targeted for Dalit students, contradicting the district education office.
In his regular meetings with the community, Sharki told people about the scholarship support for Dalit students to which they were entitled and helped the community to organize themselves to place pressure on the school administration. The administration continued to deny there was an allocation specifically targeted for Dalit students. In previous years, this would have been the end of the line. The funds would have simply vanished without a trace.
But Sharki and the community—equipped with both the knowledge of the law and the support of LANCAU’s fully qualified lawyers—would not accept no for an answer. They visited the school on numerous occasions and organized multiple discussions with the administration.
Confronted with the legal facts, the administration initially acknowledged the funds were allocated to the school. They then claimed that all of the funds were used for general administrative support, which would also benefit Dalit students, but contrary to what the regulations required.
Sharki, the students, and the community kept up their meetings. Eventually, the administration agreed to their demands, and Maiya and another Dalit student were finally given their scholarships.
This is just one example of how community-based paralegals are working with Dalit communities to help address their justice and development challenges. LANCAU’s community-based paralegals are also combatting the public discrimination outlawed through the Untouchability Act. They are helping Dalit communities organize into agricultural cooperatives and to become more powerful advocates with local government, and they are also helping Dalit community members use the formal justice system to respond to cases of rape and domestic violence.