Click here to subscribe to the print edition.New Internationalist 380July 2005Click here to search the mega index.


One in every 25 people suffers from caste discrimination based on the kind of work they do and their family origins. That is around 250-300 million people globally and 179 million in India alone. Many countries have laws against discrimination, some specifically against caste discrimination, but they are rarely enforced.

Common features of caste systems 1
• Physical segregation – for example, not being allowed to drink from the same cup or share the same water source as higher castes.

• Social segregation, including a prohibition on intercaste marriages.

• Work in traditional occupations often associated with death or filth.

Twa tribespeople, Rwanda. Photo: Betty Press / Panos Pictures
Twa tribespeople, Rwanda. Photo: Betty Press / Panos Pictures

• Debt bondage due to poor wages for lower-caste occupations. An estimated 25-60 million people in India are bonded labourers, working in slave-like conditions in order to pay off a debt. The majority are Dalits.

• High levels of illiteracy, poverty and landlessness.

• Perpetrators of crimes against lower caste communities rarely punished even where legislation exists to do so.

• Prejudice, based on notions of purity and pollution.

• Women face triple discrimination on the basis of sex, class and caste. Under the devdasi system, thousands of Dalit girls in India’s southern states are dedicated to a deity or to a temple. They are unable to marry, forced to become prostitutes for upper-caste men, and eventually auctioned into brothels.

Crime against Dalits in India
Crime against Dalits in India still goes unpunished, despite many laws against it. The number of cases of atrocities against Dalits rose from 7,445 in 1998 to 33,507 in 2002. Few of these end in convictions.2

every hour...
... two Dalits are assaulted.

every day...
... three Dalit women are raped.
... two Dalits are murdered.
... two Dalit houses are burned.3

Caste around the world 4

Dalit boy working on stone-crushing machines close to a granite quarry. He is covered in dust which is damaging to his lungs. Photo: Mark Henley / Panos Pictures
Dalit boy working on stone-crushing machines close to a granite quarry. He is covered in dust which is damaging to his lungs. Photo: Mark Henley / Panos Pictures

Name of community: Neenos, comprising 10-20% of Wolof society, are the people of caste. In Mande-speaking areas, the Nyamakalaw comprise about 5% of the population. Also, the Jonow (slaves and their descendants).
Numbers: Approximately 15% of the total population.
Traditional occupations: Neeno – blacksmiths, leatherworkers, midwives, circumcision performers. Nyamakalaw – blacksmiths, bards and leatherworkers.
Legislation: Constitutional guarantee of freedom from discrimination.

Burkina Faso
(also in Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya)

Name of community: Bellah, the slave caste of the Tuareg community.
Traditional occupations: Slaves to higher caste ‘owners’, usually as unpaid labourers, producing tradeable goods such as salt for their owners.
Legislation: The Constitution prohibits caste discrimination.

(also northern Cameroon and the Chad basin of central Africa)

Name of community: Osu, Oru, Adu-Ebo, Oruma, Ume, Ohu, Omoni. Also blacksmith and potter castes in Mandara Hills region.
Numbers: 2-4 million.
Traditional occupations: Osus are assistants to high priests of the traditional religion. Outcastes in the Mandara Hills region are blacksmiths, potters, leatherworkers, weavers, undertakers, midwives and drummers.
Legislation: Law prohibiting Osu caste system exists in Anamba and Enugu states.


Name of community: Haratin.
Numbers: 90,000-300,000.
Traditional occupations: The Haratin (‘black moors’) are slaves and ex-slaves of the Bidan (‘white moors’).
Legislation: Slavery formally abolished in 1980.

Notions of purity and pollution are prevalent in southwestern Ethiopia, though the impurity can be temporary.
Traditional occupations: Tanners, potters, blacksmiths, weavers.
Legislation: None.

Name of community: Akhdam (literally ‘servants’).
Numbers: The largest and poorest minority, estimated at around 200,000.
Traditional occupations: Street cleaning, porters, foot-soldiers and shoemakers. Women and children beg. Over half are unemployed.
Legislation: Unclear.

Rwanda (also Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda)
Name of community: Twa.
Numbers: 1-2 % of the population. Little or no representation in positions of authority or power.
Traditional occupations: Hunter-gatherers, potters, jesters.
Legislation: None.

Name of community: Watta; also among Indian Diaspora.
Numbers: 2,000-3,000 Watta.
Traditional occupations: Hunter-gatherers (Watta).
Legislation: Yes.

Name of communities: Touaregs, Hausa, Djerma-Songhaï, Peuls, Kanouri, Gourmantchema, Boudouma, Issawaghans.
Numbers: The Hausa make up 54% of the population, the Djerma- Songhaï 22%, the Touaregs 12%. Each has its own caste system.
Traditional occupation: Barbers, butchers, blacksmiths, potters, griots, shoemakers, weavers, well-diggers and slaves.
Legislation: Since 1999.

Name of community: Sab (‘low caste’) including Midgan (Mahdibhan), Tumal, Yibir.
Numbers: Approx 1% of the population.
Traditional occupations: Usually ‘çlients’ (slaves) to larger Somali ‘noble’ clans. Tumal – blacksmiths; Yibir, Midigan – hunters and leatherworkers.
Legislation: None.

Name of community: Dalit.
Numbers: Approximately 2 million. Sunni Muslims of the Swat region in northern Pakistan have a system of social stratification. In Sindh province there are around 1.8 million people living in bondage as agricultural labourers or in the brick kilns, the majority of whom are Dalits from India. There are also Dalits in Punjab province.
Traditional occupations: Sweepers, washerpeople, barbers, those who work with the innards of animals.
Legislation: None.

Sri Lanka
Name of community: Rodi or Rodiya (Sinhalese); Pallars, Nalavas and Paraiyars (Tamil).
Numbers: Unknown. Both caste systems have their origin in India, but the Sinhalese caste system is not linked to the Hindu codification, but rather to feudal divisions of society.
Traditional occupations: The Tamil caste system is occupation-based as well as hereditary. Pallars and Nalavas (descendants of former slaves) work on dominant castes’ lands; Paraiyars are engaged in so-called unclean occupations.
Legislation: The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste.

Name of community: Dalit (about 25 sub-castes).
Numbers: Approx. 4.5 million, 21% of total population.
Traditional occupations: Removers of dead carcasses, scavengers, artisans and singers.
Legislation: Caste discrimination constitutionally a punishable offence.

Name of community: Methor.
Traditional occupations: Sweepers, cleaners of toilets, drains and other dirty places.
Legislation: None.

Name of community: Buraku (traditionally eta and hinin).
Numbers: Approximately 3 million, 2.5 % of total population.
Traditional occupations: The eta – disposers of dead cattle, producers of leather, security guards and sweepers. The hinin – security guards, executioners and performers.
Legislation: Yes.

Name of community: Dalit or Scheduled Castes (numerous sub-castes, such as the Chamars, Arunthathiyurs, Pallars, Bhangis, Malas, Madigas, etc), formerly known as Untouchables.
Numbers: 179 million (2001 Census), 20% of total population.
Traditional occupations: Leather workers, cobblers, scavengers, sweepers, cremation workers, drummers, removers of animal carcasses, landless agricultural labourers.
Legislation: Yes, since 1948.

The South Asian Diaspora
Caste discrimination has been exported from South Asia by those who have settled elswhere.

There have been no statistical surveys of the numbers of Dalits living in other countries, but anecdotal evidence indicates that people from the same caste in a foreign land tend to stick together and to keep their practices and their prejudices intact.

1 National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights
2 Human Rights and Law Unit of Indian Social Institute, New Delhi
4 National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights

Previous page.
Choose another issue of NI.
Go to the contents page.
Go to the NI home page.
Next page.
Copyright 2005 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.

Subscribe to NI now!