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India: Humanity, Equality, Destiny?

Despite the international perception of India, social discrimination based on the outlawed caste sys

In 2010, the Commonwealth Games will take place in Delhi, India's capital under the slogan 'Humanity, Equality, Destiny'. To many, this may seem appropriate - earlier this year the country underwent its fifteenth general election since independence. 714 million registered to vote, reinforcing India's position as the largest functioning democracy in the world. But for millions of people in India, these concepts are far from reality.

Social discrimination based on the outlawed caste system is still very much intact. There are approximately 200 million dalits living in India - also referred to as 'scheduled castes' or 'untouchables'. These people are ranked at the bottom of the Hindu religious hierarchy on account of family descent, and as a result, are forced into social deprivation.

The Indian Constitution outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste. Indeed, over the past 60 years, caste barriers have largely broken down in cities, but in rural areas where approximately 70 per cent of India's population lives, they are still prominent. Even the country's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh acknowledges the problem - "after 60 years of constitutional legal protection and support ... Dalits face a unique discrimination in [Indian] society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of untouchability [is] Apartheid."

Sharadah is a dalit who lives in a small village in Gujarat - a resource rich state in western India. At 3am she begins her daily routine as one of India's 1.3 million manual scavengers. Her job involves going around local houses emptying the human waste from non-flushing toilets. After she has collected the waste using a brush and large drum, she carries the drum on her head, walking 4 kilometers to dispose of the contents. Many manual scavengers like Sharadah have tried to escape the manual scavenging trade, setting up alternative businesses. But in small towns and villages where the caste system is still prominent, higher castes refuse to purchase from or associate themselves with dalits. As a result, these people are forced back into manual scavenging to make enough money to survive.

Manual scavenging is a typical job assigned to dalits in India. In 1993, in response to growing domestic and international pressure from human rights groups, the Indian government passed 'The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act'. The Act prohibits the employment of manual scavengers and the construction of dry toilets not connected to proper drainage channels. Violations of the act can lead to imprisonment for up to one year or a substantial fine of 2,000 Indian Rupees. In spite of this, a 2003 government impact assessment of the Act found that the law had only been adopted in 16 of India's 28 states, and has not been enforced in any.

The Act is a typical example of a 'white elephant' policy, implemented as a short term measure to shake off interest group pressure. It is clear that without the inclusion of clear provisions for tackling the deeper issue of caste-based discrimination, that it was an impossible law to implement.
A number of interest groups are currently working to influence change from different angles. More focus needs to be brought to groups who are striving for social change through creative methods, challenging the social system through international pressure and through empowerment of the dalits themselves.

The Dalit Solidarity Network is a UK-based network of individuals, groups and organisations working with Dalit communities in Asia to end global caste-based discrimination. Alongside government lobbying and advocacy initiatives, DSN-UK has undertaken an action study 'Another Apartheid? Caste Discrimination and UK Companies' in response to growing economic investment in India by UK-based companies in recent years. Through case study investigations into eight different UK-based organisations operating in India, DSN-UK has sought to develop an understanding of employment practices by foreign investors in India with regard to the Dalit community.

"Our aim [by undertaking this study] was to open up dialogue and work with the corporate sector to inform best practice with regard to caste and caste discrimination" says Meena Varma, Director of the Dalit Solidarity Network. "It is not surprising... that few companies, especially those moving to South Asia for the first time are aware of caste discrimination. There is a real opportunity for global corporations in India to address caste through their employment, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and - in the case of banks -financing policies."

The published report includes a number of key recommendations for private investors, one of which is to encourage adoption of 'The Ambedkar Principles ' - a set of guidelines developed in 2004 which suggest numerous ways for international investors to strengthen the Dalit workforce in caste-affected countries. The Principles recommend that companies provide in-house training programmes about the caste system and emphasise the importance of complying with national legislation on the subject.

Another organisation is taking the issue of caste discrimination to the international level, encouraging discussion and awareness at international institutions including the UN and the EU. The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) is an international network of organizations which strives to link grassroot priorities with international institutions in order to change policies and practices related to caste discrimination worldwide. They have a secretariat in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In November, coordinator of IDSN Rikke Nohrlind visited Brussels with three dalit representatives from India and Nepal to discuss the extent of caste discrimination in India and South Asia. The occasion was a briefing for members of the Asia-Oceania Working Party (COASI) and Working Party on Human Rights (COHOM) - two EU working groups responsible for Asia-Europe relations and human rights respectively.

The overall purpose of the November visit was to explore how the EU can address caste discrimination in its interaction with caste-affected countries through development cooperation, trade relations and political dialogues. The delegation also urged the EU to take the issue further at the European Council level and to continue its support within the UN framework. A set of UN principles and guidelines has been developed on the basis of existing human rights principles and obligations, proposing measures for governments and other actors to prevent and address caste discrimination. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently urged the international community to endorse the guidelines and "eradicate the shameful concept of caste".

Whilst efforts from organizations such as these are invaluable in slowly encouraging change to occur, the most important type of work for dalits such as Sharadah is empowerment from the grassroots upwards. In conjunction with international projects and advocacy efforts, grassroots level initiatives are vital in challenging the social constructs of society.

Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) is a dalit movement committed to the eradication of manual scavenging in India. It was initiated in 1986 by a group of human rights activists in the state of Karnataka. Over the past twenty years, the organisation has grown substantially, and now focuses predominantly on organising and mobilising manual scavengers around the issues of dignity and rights.

In order to do this, representatives from SKA hold local meetings with manual scavengers throughout India, engaging the workers in discussion on the issue of manual scavenging, exposing its links to the caste system and identifying the inherent problems associated with the occupation. They aim is to raise awareness among the community about their rights under the law, and strive to improve the capacity of these workers to enable them to advocate for their own rights and to challenge their own position in society.

SKA also seeks to identify manual scavengers willing to work for their community, and trains them to take on work as fulltime SKA activists. These trainings centre on building perspectives on the links between the caste system and manual scavenging, human rights, developing skills of mobilisation, strategising interventions, leadership and articulation skills, as well as networking and alliance building at different levels.

Through conducting activities like these and building networks with likeminded individuals, SKA have rolled out and expanded their work across India - from its inception as a small group of social activists, SKA now have an active presence in 16 states across India. Movements like this show glimmers of hope for the future of the dalit population.

'Humanity', 'Equality' and 'Destiny' are a far cry from the existing state of Indian society, and this is unlikely to change before the commonwealth games commence next year. The caste system is a deeply entrenched issue in Indian society. However, the hosting of the games is an ideal opportunity to put India in the spotlight, encouraging more initiatives like SKA and bringing awareness to advocacy efforts like those undertaken by DSN-UK and IDSN.

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.