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."