The Just Futures Initiative at Samata Foundation

The caste system is a graded system of creating a hierarchy among human beings. The prevalence of caste-based discrimination in South Asia remains a cruel fact in spite of the illegality of the practice of untouchability. Moreover, gender and caste are inextricably connected, and the Dalit woman is at the bottom of this system.

What is the Just Futures Fellowship (JFF)?

Founded by Samata Foundation in 2021, JFF is an 18-month initiative focused on creatively engaging Dalit women in Madhesh and exploring new narratives on caste questions through the arts and humanities, including oral history repositories like, memoirs, autobiographies, poetry, short films, documentaries, art works, and traditional art objects.  Through this powerful initiative, 16 Dalit women (including sexual and gender minorities who identify as women) from Province 2 between the ages of 20 and 40 will be awarded the Just Futures Fellowship (JFF). The fellows will collaborate with eight to ten globally recognized Social Justice Resource Persons to rethink and increase their knowledge on caste-based discrimination and to enhance their skills and networks for the creation of just futures.  The fellows will also study and engage with the effects of the recent COVID-19 pandemic on the caste system. Through mutual and collaborative dialogue with the resource group on the experiences of Dalit women fighting the caste system, we hope to develop new understandings of these interconnected issues.

Why Just Futures Fellowship?

COLLABORATIVE  RESEARCH: More than 230 million Dalits worldwide are affected by the caste system. This fellowship aims to deepen research inquiry even further. It will deepen knowledge and inquiry into caste questions by collaborating on community-and-critical thinkers- produced-knowledge. Limited research on the caste system in Nepal has resulted in the misconception that the analysis of caste is limited only to aspects of untouchability. Similarly, news media and literature privilege narratives of helplessness, abuse, and discrimination that have furthered the public image of Dalits – and particularly Dalit women – as additionally victimized. Through this collaborative research the aim will be to combat such perceptions.

ART AS RESISTANCE: Although Dalits have long faced oppression and violence, along with political and social resistance they have confronted this through art and creative expression. The music and songs of Dalits, their crafts, culture, memory, and oral histories help us understand a comprehensive history of Dalits.

AMPLIFY VOICES: Written histories that center Dalit perspectives – who are historically deprived the opportunity to acquire literacy – are scant. Even less has been written about the struggles of the Dalit women in Madhesh. It is not easy to express in words the experiences of the Dalit women – their memories, their cries and screams, their aspirations and resistances. Their stories of struggle are enormously important, not only for the struggle of Nepali Dalit women, but global feminist movements and the increased effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women worldwide.

Why the collaboration with Dalit women in Province 2? 

Madheshi Dalits are 5.9 percent of the total population of Nepal, most of whom live in the eight districts of Province 2. Within Province 2, 18% are Madheshi Dalits – a significant numerical force. Dalit women, who comprise more than half of this number, are at the extreme margins of society. Their main source of livelihood is agricultural labor and limited ownership of homes. Many of them perform unpaid labor in the fields of upper-caste landowners. Many others continue to live as bonded laborers.

Dalit women in Madhesh are simultaneously fighting against discrimination based on attributes such as region, class, sex, language, and citizenship. Their struggle is aimed at receiving commensurate wages for their labor and also for a dignified living. The research of the JFI fellows will also look at the inequities that have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Province 2, a region with a substantive presence of the Mithila linguistic civilization, has emerged as a major center both for oppression and the resistance against it.  In 2017, Province 2 issued the Dalit Empowerment Act, which is the first of its kind in Nepal. A “Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability Control Unit” has been established under Dalit leadership in the Province 2 police structure.

The provincial government continues to face the challenge of making such structures inclusive on the basis of caste, gender and class, although it is rapidly implementing the provisions contained in the Dalit Empowerment Act.

It is important to recognize and support Dalit women’s voices for just futures.  Institutional leadership is also necessary, in which intellectual and cultural capital plays a large role. There is a dearth of resources among Dalits for these actions.

During the Just Futures Fellowship, collaborations will be made with thinkers and creative professionals active in the field of social justice. The new narratives that will result from this initiative will not only explore the sorrows and sufferings of Dalit women – and especially the Dalit women in Madhesh – but also shed light on the myriad aspects of their daily resistance, hopes, and aspirations. We seek to learn from the fellows, build feminist solidarity, and build a more just society.