The Devastating Reality Of Life As One Of South Asia's "Untouchable" Women

Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
To be a Dalit, or an untouchable person, means being the lowest of the low in some caste-based societies.
These communities in South Asia face segregation and extreme marginalization in everything, from access to education to economic rights. They're even denied the opportunity to step into a place of worship.
In India alone, there are about 170 million Dalits, about 17% of the population, according to the National Coalition of Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). And these caste-based social structures extend to places like Sri Lanka and Nepal, too.
Photographer Sara Hylton traveled to all three of these countries hoping to capture a slice of Dalit women's lives — the inequality they face and how they survive, but also, their hopes and dreams.
Hylton told Refinery29 she did a lot of research about the system and on specific castes in the region to prepare herself, though she's worked in the South Asia region for almost seven years. The project was commissioned by Refinery29, with the support of the NCDHR, the Sri Lanka-based Human Development Organization, and Adam Smith International in Nepal.
Her portraits are as beautiful as they are heartbreaking; an intimate look at the challenges these women face.
"Regardless of the country, the state, or the caste, they all spoke of physical or emotional abuse either by upper caste members or government authorities. The 'theme' in the way they talked about their lives was often around the issues that maintain their repression: Landlessness, segregation, being denied access to water, education, and employment," she said. "The majority of them wished to feel safe, have a home, and create a better future for their children, but most were unable to articulate how this might happen."
But Hylton cautioned against approaching these stories from a privileged point of view and believing that we may have the solution to the problems that affect these communities.
"I am very conscious about the 'white savior' concept and believe wholeheartedly in the power of storytelling alone as a tool for education and awareness," Hylton said. "I don’t profess to have any answers to these issues or to be any more advanced than these women. In fact I think in many ways the women I met are far more advanced than many of my female counterparts who are educated professionals."
These women are strong daughters, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers that champion their communities and want to provide a better world for the generations that will come after them.
"Despite the harshness of their reality, the image of the lotus often comes to me when I think of these women. The lotus, arguably one of the most beautiful flowers, emerges from deep, dirty, and murky waters – [it flourishes] despite harsh surroundings," Hylton said. "These women are like lotuses: They endure with grace, resilience, and dignity."
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Pavitra Udaya Kumar, 11, is pictured in her home on Janatha estate, a private tea estate, where her family has lived for 60 years. She was born with a birth defect and is not given any help from the government. Her sister, Sonaja, is one of the few educated women on the plantation and is working as a teacher.

Pavitra’s family is one among many families currently living in a kind of bonded labor in Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber industry. Originally Dalits from India, they are not recognized as a scheduled caste and receive few benefits from the government. Families living on the plantation reported attempting to build small gardens or cow sheds where they could cultivate, but the estate management immediately destroyed their attempts to prosper.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Parvaliya Devi, 27, works at a brick factory near the village of Kusmahi, Jaharkhand. Employees at the factory, all Dalits, are paid depending on production rates and are meant to receive 500 rupees per 1,000 bricks. (The average daily production was reported between 600 and 800 per day.)

However, employees reported receiving only 500 rupees per week, approximately $7.32 USD, and they were often not paid on time. This wage does not even meet the minimum set by the government of 167 rupees per day.

"I at least feel lucky because I have my own house and cattle," she said.

Parvaliya was a rare exception, as many in the village reported being landless and having to migrate for work.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Ram Kumar Bisunkya, 34, and Sanskari, 4, are pictured in their garden in Sheshnarayan, Nepal, where they produce cauliflower, tomatoes, scallions, spinach, and coriander to be sold at the local market. Bisunkya joined a co-operative three years ago and operates the whole farm alone, waking up at 5am to water her plants.

“I feel empowered because I have my own cash. Sometimes even my husband asks to borrow money,” she said.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Sonaja Udaya Kumar, 24, holds a portrait of her grandmother on Janatha tea estate in the Nuwara Eliya district of Sri Lanka.

Sonaja’s grandmother, like the majority of Indian Tamils living on Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber plantations, were Dalits brought over during the British Raj to work as laborers. Sonaja and her family of five remain in the same household in which her grandmother lived. She is one of a small majority to be working outside of the plantation as a teacher.

“I was born into this house, my mother was born here, our family has been in this house for 60 years," she said. "I walk eight kilometers per day and make 6,000 rupees per month…My mother and father are suffering. All I want is to study well so I can get a good job."
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Rubymalik, 16, holds her baby, Rupesh, outside of her home in Barmajhiya, in the Eastern region of Nepal. Originally from Bihar, India, Rubymalik crossed the border into Nepal when she was married at 14. She misses her family and says she is no longer able to play.

"Other communities say 'doom, doom, doom'...They don’t allow us to enter any house, we are not allowed to sit together," she said. "We are the same, we are all human beings, we are the same blood, so when the upper caste dominates, it feels bad."
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Panpati, approximately 60, is pictured in Sapbarwa village, Jharkhand. Panpati and her husband are sick and unable to work, yet they do not receive old age benefits despite having put their application into the village chief.

"We are facing discrimination…We are getting only nine kilograms of rice per month in spite of a 30 kilogram ration. Other [castes] are getting 30 kilograms," she said. "The poor people will die…The government wants to kills us off by starving us."
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Taramalik, 22, pictured with her husband Surajmalik, 25, and their children Sunitamalik and Nisamalik in Bhokraha, Nepal. Taramalik and Surajmalik were both born into the Doom caste, traditionally known as the pig rearing caste, and were married at the age of 4 and 7.

"When I wake up, I think about my work and my husband. He will earn money, so I feel happy," she said. "Part of my day is finishing work early and playing with my children. Two of them are going to school and my hope is for my children to get a good government job."
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Girls of the Doom caste graze pigs in Bardaha village in Eastern Nepal. Pig farming is still considered a dirty job, mostly performed among Dalits. Villagers reported having had their pigs killed if they walked near the homes of upper-caste villagers.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Kopila Bayalkoti, 24, works as a tailor in the Dalit village of Dandathok, Nepal. Kopila has been working as a tailor for two years. Even though few Brahmin, or upper-caste members, seek her services, she is able to help in supporting her family of seven.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Pampha Parkoti, 23, (left) is pictured at the waterspout a few miles from her village of Dandathok, Nepal. Dalits of the village are not able to use the same waterspout as upper-caste communities and are forced to walk long distances each day to collect water. Since the earthquake in 2015, villagers describe the discrimination from upper-caste members as much more severe.

Waterspouts have dried up and "Dalits are considered last," explained Ram Sharan Mijar, 51. Pampha is a trained journalist, and active in Dalit and women’s rights.

“My being from a community where you can’t get into a house and drink [water] from a spout, I always wondered what it would be like to be born into a Brahmin community and how things would have been different for me," Parkoti said. "I’ve always thought about that as I work to bring change…Because of this, I always dreamed about getting into social work and bringing about change."

Parkoti migrated to Kathmandu to study where she fought all odds, including discrimination from a spinal cord injury and being kicked out of her apartment due to her caste.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Rinapiroi, 35 collects water in the village of Karobaro in Odisha, India. The village has no water pump and villagers are forced to bathe in and drink the same water, which leads to a variety of health and stomach problems.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Tangarani Santi, 42, plucks tea leaves on Alton estate in Nuwara Eliya district, Sri Lanka. Workers are expected to pluck 18 to 20 kilograms of tea leaves per day and are paid between $3 and $4 USD.

Like the majority of tea pluckers in Sri Lanka, Tangarani is a Dalit of Indian origin. Her ancestors were brought over to Sri Lanka during the British Raj to work as laborers. Sri Lanka is the third biggest tea producer in the world, but still today, most tea workers live without housing and land rights. They live in the shacks that were built for their forefathers, without running water or electricity.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Houses, also known as "line rooms," are seen on the Alton estate in the Nuwara Eliya district of Sri Lanka. These two-room, barracks-style homes were built over a century ago during British rule and continue to house plantation workers, often across generations.

It is estimated that more than 800,000 people are living on plantations throughout Sri Lanka.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
A picture of Shiva, one of Hinduism’s primary God’s, hangs on a tree near a temple where Mandal Janjati, an upper-caste Brahmin, gives blessings to worshippers near Bokraha, Nepal.

"The real Brahmin knows about caste," proclaimed Janjati, as he lectured onlookers about the Hindu scriptures and the necessity of the caste system in maintaining purity. Dalits are not allowed to enter the temple.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Ashamalik, 21, of the Doom caste, is pictured with her pigs in Bhokraha, Nepal.

"This is our life…My caste is for rearing pigs, I don’t mind this. I used to clean toilets," she said. "We don’t have any other business, what can I say about hope…My only dream is to make my own home and have my children do good work."
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Dalit women work in the rice fields near Harirajpur, Odisha.

"We are involved in daily labor for only a few days a month and then we sit and wait. We have no work to support our families…Give me the work and I will do it," one woman said.

These women were each paid 180 rupees for eight hours of labor, roughly $2.65 USD.
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Sori Devi, 50, of Kolodohar, Jharkhand, is adorned in a Godna, a term used across tribes in central and eastern India to refer to traditional tattoos.

Of the low-caste Chamar group, this tattoo is inscribed among many women in the village and was traditionally used among low-caste women as a form of "uglification" to protect against the wandering eye of upper-caste men.

"I’m feeling very vulnerable at this time," she said.

Her husband has migrated, like many men in her village, for brick-making work in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

She added, "We are having a very horrible time because of the conditions we are facing."
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Joshada Piroi, 16, from the Dalit village of Karobaro in Orissa, bathes in the river where she also collects drinking water.

"I want to be a flower cultivator," she said.

However, Joshada dropped out of school to help with household work and has no skills to support her dream. The village where she lives has no water pump and villagers report suffering from many health and stomach problems due to drinking dirty water.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Dalit women of the Doom caste fish in the Koshi river near the border of India and Nepal.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Nanpatiya Kumar, 41, plays with Jyoti, her neighbor's baby, in the village of Kolodohar, Jharkhand. Nanpatiya lost her husband three years ago due to breathing problems as she could not afford a doctor.

“If my husband would have been here I wouldn’t worry so much. Now I worry about the kids all the time. How will I get them married?” she asked.

Despite Nanpatiya’s challenges, the women of Kolodohar have found a comfort in one another as many of the men have migrated for work.
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Photographed by Sara Hylton. @sarahyltonphoto
Buddha Laxmi Sunar, 42, stands in her vegetable garden where she grows spinach, tomatoes, and cauliflower in Sheshnarayan, Nepal.

Buddha used to be involved in pig-rearing but had knowledge of tomato farming as a child and decided to take her skills to the commercial level. She was one of the first women to bring commercial farming to her village.
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A girl from the Dalit village of Harirajpur chases a kite on the dried up Mahanadi riverbed in Odisha, India. This is the primary source of water for many villagers, who, living in one of India’s poorest states, must walk long distances to retrieve drinking water during the dry season.

This is the photographer's favorite image.

"I walked over to the river to breathe in some space and I immediately saw this little girl jumping up to the sky attempting to catch her kite. It was a perfect metaphor," Hylton told Refinery29. "The image to me invokes a sense of hope, dignity, and innocence — something I found in all of the women I met."