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Dhaka Dalits push for anti-discrimination law

Dhaka, Bangladesh - Rickshaw-pullers in Dhaka will take their passengers inside almost any residential colony. But one loyal customer was surprised when a puller refused to enter Ganaktuli City Colony, a dilapidated area housing more than 3,000 members of the Dalit population. The Dalits were once known as "the untouchables" in many parts of South Asia.

This sort of ongoing discrimination has taken a toll on more than 6.5 million Dalits in Bangladesh. Due to their profession and identity, the Dalits - the term comes from the word dalita or "oppressed" - are still not allowed to rent houses outside their communities.

Although younger generations of Dalits are increasingly educating themselves, many say they are not able to get jobs commensurate to their training, due to discrimination.

But a draft anti-discrimination law, which could be approved by June, has the potential to improve life for members of the marginalised community, human rights activists have said.

Poor conditions

The Ganaktuli Colony originally housed a tuberculosis hospital, but after the institution relocated to another area, members of the Dalit community were moved into the abandoned buildings.

Three or four families are residing in each of the 260 rooms. "We are fortunate, as we have nine people living in our room," said Sunayana Rani, a 37-year-old housewife. Her husband works as a cleaner at the Ibrahim Cardiac Hospital and Research Institute in Central Dhaka. Dalit populations across South Asia are mostly confined to low-level service jobs as cleaners, corpse bearers, leather workers, or cobblers.

"Besides my husband and kids, I share the room with my father-in-law, mother-in-law and the family of my brother-in-law," she said. "At night, my husband and I sleep in the kitchen while his parents sleep on the balcony."

None of the rooms in the five old buildings have attached bathrooms. "On each floor of the buildings, we have two washrooms at the staircases, one for male and another for female," Moni Rani Das, president of the Dalit Women's Forum, told Al Jazeera. Water for domestic use needs to be dragged in buckets from the two water tanks.

"Women and men have to bathe under the open skies in water from the tanks, which is very unhealthy," said Sunayana. "But we have no alternatives as we cannot get water from other areas nearby."