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Publication Date : 09-03-2013
Nepal's Badi community, one of the countries most discriminated and oppressed caste groups, is looking to emerge from their dark past
"In our caste, families are very happy when a daughter is born…She’ll dance and sing...They’ll be very happy,” explains Pawa Badi, of the very uncommon sentiment in a male-dominated Nepali society, so strongly fixated on the birth of sons.
Pawa is a member of the Badi community. In Sanskrit, ‘Badi’ translates to ‘one who plays musical instruments’. However, this small community found predominantly in the Terai (plains) and mid-hills of western Nepal does not enjoy any of the adoration or status that may be offered to musicians in other cultures.
Rather, the Badi people are one of the most heavily discriminated and oppressed caste groups in Nepal’s social hierarchy, even amongst other Dalits, often labelled as the ‘untouchables of the untouchables.’
A study from Tribhuvan University traces the origins of the Badi to the 14th century; when small travelling groups migrated from Northern India to Western Nepal, “staging songs and dance performances and telling stories from the great Hindu epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.”
Pawa recounts her youth spent dancing at festivals and weddings for simple payments of rice and corn. With her father playing the madal (musical instrument) and older sister singing centuries-old folk songs, she was told to dance for the first time at a local village wedding. “I didn’t know how to dance, so my father hit me on my back and my feet.” Pawa remembers. She had learnt to dance in the next couple of days. “I danced to earn my living up to the age of 22.”
For countless generations, the Badi people have lived as entertainers for the ruling castes of western Nepal; offering their daughters as singers, dancers and courtesans. This offered the Badi people relative social security and a stable means of survival. Without claims on land and an alternative occupation, following the overthrow of Nepal's autocratic Rana regime in the 1950s, many Badi women and their daughters have resorted to prostitution. Pawa tells again of how girls in her caste are encouraged to dance and ‘caress men’s cheeks’, so that they would give money to the parents.
Compared to other Dalit groups in Nepal, which have seen relative progress in recent years through political representation and activism, the small Badi community, numbering only 38,603 according to the 2011 census, are still largely segregated from mainstream Nepali society, living in scattered colonies and slums.
Pawa’s home in Namunabasti sits on the outskirts of Dailekh Bazaar (Dailekh’s district capital), which - like many other Badi communities - is plagued by persistent issues like domestic violence, alcoholism, poor sanitation and endemic poverty.
A 2008 government enquiry found that “though only six percent of Badi women are involved in prostitution, the majority have faced harassment and social prejudice” due to the stigma of prostitution which has become attached to their caste.
“They call us useless…They say we have as many lovers as there are sticks in the forest…they say this every day” Pawa tells of her lifelong struggle against discrimination, tears brimming in her eyes.
Before a micro-enterprise project was introduced to Namunabasti a couple of years ago, Pawa, together with the other women of her community, worked primarily in the nearby town centre loading freight trucks which earned her roughly 6,000 rupees (US$68.1) per year. She still engages in this activity as a supplementary income.
“Recently my younger sister carried 20 sacks of rice in the morning and gave birth to a baby in the evening,” says Pawa.
Though initially sceptical of outside support, Pawa’s community has now adopted training in small-scale pig farming. They have received a small stock and basic materials from the Micro-Enterprise Development Programme to begin their new livelihood.
Since Pawa started her business of raising pigs, she has been able to put away some money. “Before I lived in a slum. Now I live in a hut,” she says. Her hut has a gas-run cooking stove, which she prizes. “I have a gas stove, I can afford to wear gold. I am very happy,” she adds with a smile.
Pawa now holds a key position in her community cooperative, granting her improved social status and self-confidence. “We are also human beings…we also have dignity!” Pawa says.
Though the Badi community still faces many deep-seated barriers, which may take generations to overcome, Pawa is hopeful. Pawa is illiterate, she’s had no formal education and has only recently learnt to sign her name. She has three young children who are now attending their local primary school.
“My dancing days are over. I don’t tell my son to play the drum. After what I have been through I hope my community doesn’t have to face the same.”
The writer is a volunteer for The National Micro Entrepreneurs Federation of Nepal, as part of the ‘Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development’ programme
*US$1=88 Nepalese rupees