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Why caste discrimination blocks progress on the SDGs

Caste-based discrimination excludes and marginalises extremely vulnerable people and contributes to entrenched poverty and inequality. Inherited caste status, as found in South Asia and its global diaspora, has been described as “an important determinant of life opportunity for a fifth of the world’s population.” 

But caste, and other forms of discrimination based on work and descent, are largely invisible in discussions about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If we are serious about zero discrimination, if we are really going to leave no one behind, this needs to change.

Challenging discrimination is a collective responsibility. Drawing on the experience of NGOs working in South Asia, as well as evidence from social movements, academics and UN bodies, Christian Aid has contributed to a report by the Bond Caste and Development Group, published later this month. Caste and Development: Tackling Discrimination Based on Work and Descent provides recommendations for ways that governments, NGOs and donors can take this responsibility seriously.

Tackling discrimination is vital

Agenda 2030 has put inequality firmly on the development agenda, along with the principle that we reach the furthest behind first. Achieving this is about more than expanding the reach and coverage of development efforts.

Discrimination is a social and political process which gives rise to and perpetuates group-based inequalities across generations. UN guidance on how these inequalities should be addressed in progressing the SDGs calls for analysis of how laws, social norms, traditional practices and institutional responses positively or negatively affect the rights of marginalised communities.  

Caste discrimination is based on who you are and the work you do. It is prevalent in South Asian countries where over 201 million people experience social exclusion based on the caste they were born into. In at least 20 other countries, similar forms of ‘discrimination based on work and descent’ (DWD) disadvantage marginalised people in all aspects of life.

Despite this, neither caste nor DWD are mentioned in Agenda 2030. This means that SDG 17.18 – which points to the need for data disaggregation by ‘characteristics relevant in the national context’ – is a particularly important provision for making caste-based disparities visible and ensuring that we work to close the gaps.

What development practitioners need to know

Caste hierarchies are relational and complex. Caste can be hard to understand for people who aren’t affected and many people (including NGO staff) may find it embarrassing or difficult to talk about. 

The silence around caste often results in the most marginalised people being excluded or sidelined in humanitarian and development programmes. Like racism in the UK, caste is often ‘brushed under the carpet’ or assumed to be no longer a problem. Some people also worry that talking about caste-based social exclusion is perceived as a criticism of certain countries, cultures or religions.

Let’s be clear: discrimination is a violation of human rights. Caste and other forms of discrimination based on work and descent cut across countries, continents and religions, and are mostly illegal. Some governments have taken significant steps to end discrimination, but changing social norms takes time. Social movements have been critical in promoting changes needed. The Dalit movement, which brings together people from excluded castes in South Asia and its diaspora, is growing in strength and numbers. 

Yes, this is a political issue. But development practitioners need to be aware of it and – working alongside governments and social movements – address its impacts to ensure their work is effective.   

Caste affects inequality across the SDGs

Caste remains an important cause of inequality in modern economies, and it is still an important determinant of development outcomes. In the run-up to this year’s UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, Caste and Development: Tackling Discrimination Based on Work and Descent takes a look at caste-based disparities across several SDGs:     

  • SDG 4 (education): While Bangladesh has made great progress in access to primary education, in 2014, just 28.5% of Dalit children were registered in school, in contrast to the national average of 96.7%. Drop-out rates for Dalit children are very high.
  • SDG 8 (decent work): In India, wages are particularly low in areas where populations include a large proportion of Dalits,  and ILO data finds that wages for excluded castes are around half those of other groups. Across South Asia, for example Sri Lanka and Pakistan, caste is strongly associated with bonded labour and other forms of slavery.
  • SDG 10 (inequalities): As well as caste-based deprivation, caste-based privilege is an important aspect of widening inequalities. Academic Jayati Ghosh has argued that in India growth is based on private accumulation – which has relied on existing social inequalities creating segmented labour markets that keep wages low for certain social categories, while benefitting more privileged ones.
  • SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions): Violence against Dalits, and particularly women, is widespread. The UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Rights also describes caste as a barrier to claiming rights and justice, highlighting discrimination within criminal justice systems, fear of reprisals, and the notion that caste-based discrimination should be solved within communities rather than treated as a crime.

Our collective responsibility

In South Asia especially, much is being done by governments, donors and NGOs already. Practical measures include protective laws, targeted social protection schemes, support for access to education and employment, and programmes to support marginalised castes to break out of exploitative employment and bonded labour. Dalit organisations and social movements have played a leading role in lobbying for protective policies and ensuring their proper implementation. 

Caste and Development: Tackling Discrimination Based on Work and Descent, published later this month, suggests a more caste-sensitive delivery of SDGs. Our recommendations for governments, NGOs and donors draw from our own experiences, and lessons learned from a range of helpful interventions.

We aim to advance the SDGs for many millions of people across the world who would otherwise be overlooked.