Tony Baldry MP is Conservative MP for Banbury and became chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Commission in July. He has formerly served as both a Foriegn Office minister and chairman of the International Development Select Committee. Here he describes his experience working with Dalit communities in Nepal where he volunteered with VSO during the summer recess.
There has never been a more exciting time to volunteer in Nepal. Still recovering from years of violent Maoist conflict, a nervous peace settlement is holding and has paved the way for a new, democratically elected Constitutional Assembly.
Political change has tentatively started to build a more inclusive society however there is still a long way to go. Nepal has made the caste system illegal however Dalits, often referred to as untouchables, are still persecuted and perceived as at the bottom of the social pecking order. There are only two Dalit ministers in government and despite representing 20% of the population, Dalits have only omne twelfth of the seats of the constitutional Assembly.
Through VSO’s Parliamentarian Volunteering Scheme I mentored Dalit MPs to help draft a new constitution and campaign for greater inclusion and influence. Traditionally blacksmiths and ironworkers, Dalits were people associated with trades unclean. But actually they cover the whole spectrum of society, just like any other group.
Changing perceptions is a difficult challenge. With its roots in Hindu religion, the caste system has been an integral part of Nepalese society for hundreds of years and forms the backbone of society. However tackling Dalit exclusion and prejudice is the biggest hurdle Nepal faces in moving towards development.
Dalits are often excluded from education and health care, and condemned to a life of abject poverty. It stifles personal growth and stalls change. 76% of Dalits aged 6 years and above have never attended school and life expectancy for female Dalits is ten years younger than the national average.
A caste system in the 21st Century is completely ludicrous – one can’t condemn people to poverty by accident of history – and the county is losing out on an enormous amount of skills and talent.
We all want Nepal to reach the Millennium Development Goals, however discrimination towards Dalits actively restricts the potential of a significant proportion of society. Only by ending persecution and harnessing the potential of all members of the community can they hope to achieve real progress.
Throughout my two volunteer placements, I helped Dalits lobby for greater inclusion setting up an umbrella group for all Dalit NGOs and building a louder, unified voice. Many Dalits are now in a position of authority for the first time, after being elected to the Constitutional Assembly. They found talking to a British MP extremely helpful and I helped them to understand how to be an effective elective representative, talking about everything from writing press releases to how to keep in touch with your constituents. I also ran a workshop on how to lobby effectively. I’ve been a lobbyer and been lobbied for many years, so I hope I brought a slightly different perspective to this.
As an MP who passionately believes in a fair and equitable society, I wanted to spend my summer recess making a difference. Volunteering with VSO, as part of it’s dedicated parliamentarian volunteering scheme gave me an opportunity to have a direct impact on the lives of people affected by the caste system. Volunteering for the second year running was hugely rewarding and it was great to return this year to see the progress it had made
Having worked as a Minister in the Foreign Office with ministerial responsibilities for South Asia, I’d travelled extensively to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh but had never had the opportunity to visit Nepal. Working with VSO gave me the opportunity to immerse myself with other volunteers and get a quick understanding of the issues.
I am just one of 20 Parliamentarians who volunteered over the last two years with as part of the scheme. MPs can have a huge impact on VSO’s work, transferring unique skills gained navigating the corridors of power and I recommend it to any colleague in any house.
I return invigorated and passionate about international development and will work hard to ensure my constituents are engaged with the issue. It’s a small world and highly important that people understand global issues and the impact they can have upon them. If you are in a developing country, one of the most important things is knowing that people in the world care about you and are concerned about your future. Campaigning for development, particularly in times of credit crunch when people are looking at themselves, remembering we are a single global community, one family, one world is of crucial importance.
Prejudice based on caste must stop. Britain remains Nepal’s largest bilateral aid donor and has a responsibility to uphold the UN and Nepal’s efforts to end persecution towards Dalits. Instability, exasperated by the injustice, spreads chaos to an area of critical importance to the UK’s interests. It also poses increased risks to British citizens both working, travelling and living in Nepal.
In Nepal, half of the total population of 26 million are under 18 years of age. It’s a great opportunity to deliver change. Volunteering with VSO Parliamentary Volunteer Scheme is great way to be part of it.