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Empowerment through sweet eating

11 January 2011

Kathryn Ramsay, MRG’s Gender Programme Coordinator, is asked to perform a rather unorthodox task whilst visiting partners in India.

The job of a programme coordinator at MRG is varied, but I never thought it would include being asked to judge a sweet eating competition! I’m in India to visit MRG’s Gender Programme partners. Navsarjan Trust, based 45km outside Ahmedabad in Gujarat, is working with MRG on research on violence against Dalit women and promoting Dalit womens’ leadership. They also run a vocational training centre – Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK) – and it is young women from the training centre (aged 15-22) who are taking part in the sweet eating competition. Entering the hall, 11 are sitting on a stage with empty plates in front of them, watched by another 20 girls chattering excitedly.

But why would sweet eating be part of a vocational training course? All the girls belong to the Dalit community, the lowest rank in India’s caste system. Dalits are ‘outcasts’ and although illegal, many ‘untouchability’ practices continue, especially in rural areas. The training the girls receive at DSK equips them with skills to do jobs outside their traditional ‘caste occupations’ (demeaning jobs forced on them because of their caste). It also teaches them about equality and empowers them to challenge the discrimination they face. Navsarjan’s Director, Manjula Pradeep, tells me that the sweets they will be eating, known as laddoos, are traditionally only eaten by upper castes members and are forbidden to Dalits.

Dalit girls taking part in the sweet eating competition
Dalit girls taking part in the sweet eating competition

I’m asked to hand out sweets to each girl then a DSK staff member starts the competition. The noise and excitement in the hall increases dramatically. Laddoos are balls of about 3cm in diameter made of chickpea flour. I taste one; it’s very sweet and extremely heavy. After each round girls drop out and those continuing are given more sweets. At the end of four rounds the joint winners are obviously delighted (the prize is 1000 Rupees or about £14) although they both look like they’re about to be sick!

The following day is very special for DSK. All of the 2138 women and girls who have received training have been invited back for a celebration of their achievements. Girls from the Valmiki community – the lowest sub-caste of Dalits whose traditional caste occupation is cleaning out human excrement by hand from dry toilets – have been invited as an encouragement to them to join training programmes like DSK. In total around 800 Dalit women and girls are present along with some Muslim and indigenous women who have also received training at DSK. A testament to the value these women place on DSK is that so many travelled from all over Gujarat (some for over 7 hours) and at their own expense, to attend the event.

There is an awards ceremony for current students (including the prize for the sweet eating competition) and then former students tell their stories of coming to DSK and how their lives have been changed. Some are running their own tailoring businesses having been taught to sew and helped to buy sewing machines, others now have jobs in companies after receiving computer training, one has her own mobile phone repairing business and a number have gone on to become staff at Navsarjan.

Also in the audience are 30 Dalit women from 5 other states in India. They are all leaders (or potential leaders) who have come to see the work of Navsarjan and to discuss what they can do to strengthen their leadership and what type of training and support they will need to do it. Sweet eating aside, this is the reason for my visit, and we will spend the next two days devising a plan of action.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.