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Dalits with disabilities hit hardest by lockdown in Nepal (Part 2)

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If the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affects most of the world’s population, all do not benefit from prevention and healthcare services the same way. On the contrary, the health crisis tends to worsen the situation of minorities by worsening existing forms of segregation and social inequalities. And those who cumulate factors of exclusion are hit the hardest. Krishna Gahatraj, from Nepal’s National Association of the Physical Disabled, tells stories from Dalits with Disabilities. Read the first part of this article here.

Inequalities and Insights from Nepal from an Intersectional Lens – Part 2

When the pandemic hits

Ms. Gauli Damai, a woman with physical disability living in Birendranagar Municipality, Surkhet district, was born in a poor Hill Dalit family. Ms. Damai got diagnosed with meningitis when she was twenty-seven, as she lived with her husband and seven-year-old daughter. When, unable to access better treatment due to her poor financial background, she experienced further complications and became paralyzed, her husband left her and re-married. Now in her fifties and living with her family, Ms. Damai uses a wheelchair for mobility and requires personal assistance.

Before COVID-19 hit the world, Ms. Damai worked as a tailor on her own for her survival. But when the Government suddenly imposed the months-long countrywide lockdown, she lost her daily income. Since she used to manage her daily food as well as her medical and clinical supplied such as diapers, urinary bags, and Clean Intermittent Catheterization (CIC) from this earning, she lost all these basic necessities, let alone health and hygiene supplied needed to keep her safe from COVID-19. Having neither food nor the essential medical supplies required for her survival, Ms. Damai’s life is now in jeopardy: being a Dalit woman with a severe physical disability, she has not received any sort of support from the Government or other agencies. According to the Nepal Government system, persons with disabilities who are registered receive a red and blue-coloured disability identity cards depending on the degree of severity of their impairments. Once registered, they can receive a disability allowance as part of social protection schemes. However, this allowance is so nominal that it is far from adequate for survival and independence.

Furthermore, the Nepal Government decided not to provide relief packages to those who receive these regular social security allowances. Due to this legal barrier, many Dalits with Disabilities like Ms. Damai are left behind from accessing extra support as part of the government’s response on COVID-19 pandemic, despite the losses of income caused by the lockdown.

Ms Damai says that she doesn’t have any options to save her from death, should anything go beyond her capability.

Ms. Gauli Damai sits on a mat, leaning against a brick wall outside her family house. She is facing the camera, mid-speech, and wearing a black headscarf and red patterned and blue clothes.
Ms. Gauli Damai sits on a mat outside her house.

A multi-level discrimination

Of all provinces of Nepal, Province No. 2 has the highest multidimensional poverty index. The province also has a high prevalence of Madhesi communities. Madhesi Dalits are the country’s most socio-economically, culturally, and politically marginalized and deprived community, even among the Dalits. A high majority of them are illiterate, landless, and sometimes even homeless. Madhesi Dalits with Disabilities therefore face multiple tiers of discrimination and exclusion in their lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed them further behind their already disadvantaged position at the bottom of society.

Ms. Gauli Damai is being helped into her wheelchair by her family; a woman with a baby strapped to her back is helping to arrange her legs and a young boy helps to lift her under the arms from behind.
Ms. Gauli Damai is helped into her wheelchair by her family.

Mr. Amrit Ramani lives in Chandranagar Rural Municipality, in Nepal’s Province No. 2. Mr. Ramani has five family members living together in a small, decrepit hut on rented land, with no access to their own source of drinking water. Having a physical disability himself and suffering from hypertension, he used to earn daily income for the family’s livelihood. His elder son has poliomyelitis, and both use sticks to aid with their mobility. Being a person with disability from the Madhesi Dalit community, Mr. Ramani experiences social exclusion, caste-based discrimination and untouchability. His family faces multiple social barriers, making survival a great challenge even in normal circumstances.

When the lockdown hit, the family’s source of income dried up. Due to a lack of COVID-19-related information in their local language and in easily understandable formats, Mr. Ramani and his family are unaware of the reason for the lockdown, and are therefore not informed of how to stay safe from the disease.

Outside their house, Mr Amrit Ramani stands with the help of a long stick next to his wife and three children. They are all facing the camera, unsmiling.
Mr Amrit Ramani stands outside his house with his wife and three children.

Obliged to eat roadside vegetables

Mr. Kisin Dev Bin, a fourty-year old Dalit with Disability, lives in the same Municipality as Mr. Ramani with his six family members. They, too, live on rented land. Mr. Bin and his wife both have disabilities. Before the pandemic, they used to manage their livelihoods by day after day with a small income. The Government-issued prolonged lockdown has been unfortunate for the family, as they now neither have adequate food in stock, nor do they have money to purchase some. They have been managing their daily survival with help from their neighbours, but it is now particularly challenging for them to survive the lockdown. “We are obliged to eat edible green vegetable leaves found on roadsides”, Mr. Bin said.

Mr Amrit Ramani sits on a mat outside his house; he is using a stick to help him up. Next to him sits his young son. The house is small and simple, with mud walls painted with handprints and a wood and tile roof.
Mr Amrit Ramani sits on a mat outside his house, with his son.

Conclusion

All these stories tell of the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of those living at the intersection of caste-based and disability-based exclusions. Dalits with Disabilities are more likely to face hunger due to the loss of their livelihoods and the lack of government support, health information, access to essential equipment and treatment, as well as to discrimination, depression and anxiety, inability to adhere to physical distancing, and lack of hygiene facilities.

Photo of a dusty, unpaved road leading to several houses and an electricity pole in the distance and wooden fencing in the foreground.
The road leading to Mr Amrit Ramani’s family house.

Dalits with Disabilities are the most marginalized and excluded minority group in Nepal. The unsystematically issued countrywide lockdown has been hitting particularly hard the so-called lower-caste people, whose lives have been put at risk of death due to hunger and starvation despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, the government has not reached the families the most in need for support and assistance, including in regard of the cases of rape against Dalit girls with disabilities that have been reported to the police, and of the numerous cases of caste-based discrimination and untouchability reported by the media. The Government should be held accountable and responsible towards addressing the needs of every member of its population.

Mr. Kisin Dev Bin squats on the floor of his house alongside his wife and two children. They are facing the camera, unsmiling.
Mr. Kisin Dev Bin and his wife and two children.
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