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Updated Mar 13, 2023, 4:24pm EDT

How cities across the world are tackling caste discrimination

Students in Ontario, Canada
REUTERS/Carlos Osorio
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The News

Toronto’s public school board became the first in Canada to recognize caste discrimination on Wednesday, and voted to ask the Ontario Human Rights Commission to create a new framework on how schools can address caste oppression.

The historic move comes at a time when some countries are acknowledging the discriminatory practices that are still prevalent among South Asian diaspora communities.

Here’s a look at how some cities are tackling the issue.

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The View From Toronto

Toronto’s original plan was to have members of discriminated caste groups develop curriculums that would teach students about caste oppression, but the motion was amended after teachers said that they did not have the capacity, training, and understanding to adequately implement the new courses.

The new motion will ensure that concerns from both educators and parents are met, as the Ontario Human Rights Commission was specifically created to address discrimination in the public sector.

Advocates say the changes are particularly needed for Toronto schools where 22% of students are South Asian.

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The View From Seattle

In February, Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination after a city council vote.

The new ordinance added caste as a protected class among other categories like race, sexual orientation, religion, and gender identity.

In the weeks leading up to vote, several people testified about their own experiences with caste discrimination, saying the legislation was of particular importance for the city where major tech corporations employ hundreds of South Asian immigrants.

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The View From Silicon Valley

A California state court is set to hear a case about a former Cisco employee who said he was a victim of caste discrimination.

He alleged that his supervisors barred him from meetings and rejected promotions because he belongs to the Dalit caste, considered the lowest tier in the hierarchical system.

Cisco has denied any wrongdoing and said an internal investigation found no evidence to support the former employee’s allegations.

Several big tech corporations are independently reviewing their polices on caste, with both Apple and IBM updating their employee conduct policy to explicitly prohibit caste discrimination.

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The View From London

The U.K. Parliament backed down from passing a ban on caste discrimination in 2018. Then-Prime Minister Theresa May cited “extremely low” reports of caste discrimination as the reason the bill was never passed, adding that it would be “difficult to define” caste in legal terms.

Many Hindu groups were opposed to the reform, saying that the legislation was part of a ”Hinduphobic" agenda, and that caste discrimination was largely a result of British colonization as opposed to historical religious implementations.

Despite the bill stalling, advocates have continued pushing for changes to the country’s discrimination laws.

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Step Back

The caste system is believed to be thousands of years old, though there is academic disagreement on when and how the discriminatory practice became so prevalent. While the earliest origins of the system can be derived from ancient Hindu texts, caste divisions are also prevalent in other South Asian countries apart from India, as well as other religious groups.

Adherers of the Hindu caste system believe that Hindus are born to rigid hierarchical groups that ultimately dictate their social and economic status, including where they can live, where they can work, and who they can marry. The Dalit community remains the lowest of the rungs, and is subject to widespread discrimination and even violence.

India’s constitution banned caste discrimination in the 1950s, but it remains a pervasive component of society.

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