Nepal: The difference between law and reality

15 December 2014

By law, all people of Nepal are equal. In 1963, the caste system was declared obsolete and was abolished. The reality, however, is somewhat different. Inequalities, social practices and sheer poverty reinforce the rigid caste system which assigns the people to categories by the virtue of birth, and largely predefines their development and possibilities.

My friend Hast Banadur Sunar is national project coordinator at the Dalit NGO Federation. He and his colleagues work hard to protect the rights of the Dalit people. According to various estimations, there are between 3-4 million Dalits in Nepal. Dalit is a group (with many sub-groups) that make up the lowest caste. They are considered impure and "untouchable." As such they are discriminated in cultural, religious, education and work practices. Traditionally they receive much less. They are underrepresented in the civil service and overrepresented in the low-paid occupations.

How is Hast helping the Dalit people? He and his colleagues use the law to empower them. Many people in Nepal live outside the law due to the sheer lack of identity documents. Again, Dalits are overrepresented in this ill-fated group. In the last 3 years, Hast and his colleagues established a program that has helped more than 62 000 Nepalese women and men to obtain citizenship certificates, birth certificates or marriage certificates.

Hast is a Dalit himself. But he and his colleagues do not differentiate among the people who need assistance. They have also helped thousands of upper-class people (Brahmins and Kshetri), as well as indigenous Janajati to obtain identity documents. I find this a great example of how discrimination can be countered with equal application of the law.

Thanks to Hast and his colleagues, 62 000 people have obtained identity documents. HiiL Innovating Justice is working together with the Dalit NGO Federation, Open Society Justice Initiative and several other partners to measure and evaluate the impact of the program. We will work to understand how access to the law is changing the lives of the Nepalese men and women who have received their documents. Our focus will be to understand how having a legal document affects people's abilities to solve their needs for justice and prosperity. Together we want to provide evidence of the impact that Hast and his colleagues make in the lives of the people who need justice the most.