NEPAL: Gandharva Dalit women and children suffer from hard labour, food and health insecurity

Through field research, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has learned that women and children of the Gandharva community, the most vulnerable Dalit community living in Nepal’s Surket district are suffering from a lack of food as well as hard labour, resulting in malnutrition and serious health problems. By extracting sand, crushing stones from the nearby river, and loading them in a vehicle, a Gandharva family of 5-8 members merely makes 100 rupees (USD 1.26) a day, with which they can barely get two meals. Additionally, the public health post is a two hour walk from their hamlet, and they cannot afford to pay for transportation to get there. The nearest primary school is also a one hour walk away, and children rarely go to school as they are engaged in labour to survive. Since settling there in 1993, the Gandharva community has yet to be provided with any source of sustainable income, basic health facilities, safe drinking water or proper housing.




Thirty-five Gandharva households have been living in the Jarbutta Village Development Committee (VDC), Surket district, since 1993. The Gandharva community was traditionally nomadic, managing their livelihood by playing musical instruments and have now settled in the Shiva community forest between two other community forests. Being Dalits and nomads, they are one of the most vulnerable communities, with no land for housing or cultivation. They further found it difficult to adjust to a new place near the Jhupra River.


[photo 1] Steep and rocky path to the village


The path to reach Jhupra hamlet where the Gandharva community resides is rocky and steep. It takes about 20 minutes on foot from the main road to the hamlet, and is considerably difficult to navigate for physically vulnerable persons such as the elderly, pregnant women, or persons with disabilities. Needless to say, there is no land for cultivation in this area and no other source of income but collecting stones. Both men and women are engaged in selling sand or stones that they collect near the riverside. They crush the stones and load them into a truck that transports them to town.



According to the Gandharvas, it takes three days for one family to fill the truck with crushed stones. Generally, women crush the stones and men load them in the truck. Children also contribute their labour. A family is paid 300 Nepali rupees (USD 3.79) for filling the truck, which is equivalent to 100 rupees (USD 1.26) per day. The employer who allegedly owns the land on the other side of the river has been paying this wage, far less than the minimum wage fixed by the government, since the Gandharvas settled in the village. [photo 2] Sand and stones near the riverside


The community falls far below the international poverty line. During the rainy season, it is more difficult to extract sand and stones from the often-flooded river. The Gandharvas have to carry them in a bamboo basket (doko) weighing 30 kilograms on their heads, and walk along the steep and slippery path to the main road to load them in the truck. They are paid a mere 60 rupees (USD 0.76) for two trips.


One Gandharva woman (38 years old) who has four children, three sons and one daughter, and is currently pregnant (as of April 2011), has been suffering from serious uterine ailments for 15 years. Another 11 women also suffer from similar health issues. They are physically exhausted from undertaking hard labour in the cold river with insufficient nutrition. The distance to the public health institution requires two hours walking, including along a steep path, or a transportation fee that the poor Gandharva cannot afford. This obstacle prevents women from approaching the health facility for delivery or other medical treatment, contributing to their development of obstetric diseases such as uterine ailments.


Additionally, insufficient nutrition causes serious health issues for women and children. Gandharvas hardly manage two meals a day, usually eating a mixture of wheat flour and water. Women said they have never had meat and hardly eat anything other than wheat or rice, leading to health problems during pregnancy as well as the birth of babies with disabilities. Moreover, women have to commence with their physically grueling work immediately after giving birth.


In December 2010, a mother with disability in her eyes and ears gave birth to a baby with an unidentified shape who soon died. Two children are blind and some are deaf within the Gandharva community. Many children are undernourished while engaging in labour to supplement their family livelihood. The primary school is one hour-walking distance from their hamlet, and the children hardly go to school ten days a month.


Their houses without windows or doors cannot prevent wind, rain or floods from entering, particularly during the rainy season. The lack of safe drinking water is another big obstacle in ensuring safe food and health. It is a further burden upon the women, who must obtain the water for cooking and drinking everyday.




FIAN-Nepal addressed the Gandharva women’s human rights issues in its parallel report before the CEDAW 49th session held in July 2011. According to the international poverty line (based on 2006 data), about 55 percent of Nepal’s total population live on less than USD 1.25 day, while the government identifies about 31 percent living below the poverty line. The Acute Multidimensional Poverty index further suggests that 64.7 percent of Nepalis live in poverty. According to the Global Hunger Index 2010, 38.8 percent of children under five years are underweight, whereas 24 per cent of women aged 15-49 years are malnourished.


As observed in the Millennium Development Goals report 2011, there was no improvement on child malnutrition among the poor in Southern Asia including Nepal. While stabilizing the country by enacting a Constitution and other domestic laws and policies, it seems the Nepali government has not prioritized the eradication of poverty and hunger to ensure its citizens’ fundamental right to life. Given that women and children are more exposed to hunger and poverty in Nepal, it also implies that the government has not paid enough attention to the rights of women and children.


One of the major causes of extreme poverty prevalent among Dalit communities is the government’s failure in creating accessibility to stable income sources such as land or other natural resources. As shown in the Gandharva community above, while they were provided some land for settlement, neither a sustainable income source nor basic facilities were granted to guarantee a life with dignity.


In its Concluding Observation on Nepal, the CEDAW Committee expresses its deep concern about the poor access to basic medical care, particularly by poor, rural and disabled women. It recommends that Nepal prioritize programs ensuring access to a full range of maternal services and take preventive measures to combat the problem of uterine prolapse. Furthermore, the Committee is concerned about the lack of access to land, adequate food and safe drinking water of rural women. The Committee recommends that Nepal should address structural causes of poverty within the overall framework of achieving people-centered sustainable development.

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