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Activist Burnad speaks

The 2011 Human Rights Oak Fellow, Fatima Burnad, delivers her lecture, “Untouchability and Human Rights:

The College’s new Oak Fellow, Fatima Burnad, has been on campus for well over a month. However, last Thursday, Sept. 22, the College community finally had the opportunity to hear her speak on the topic about which she is most passionate.

Burnad delivered a lecture entitled “Untouchability and Human Rights: Fighting Poverty and the Caste System in India.” She has won several awards for her activism and work in this area. Her passion for her work stems from her firsthand experience with poverty and the caste system in India since age 11.

The Oak Institute for International Human Rights was established at the College in 1998. This organization brings socio-political activists to the Hill through a year-long fellowship program. It allows each fellow to work with students in a classroom setting and to share his or her experiences in the form of lectures such as the one that was held last Thursday.

Burnad addressed an audience of well over 60 people, including members of the greater Waterville community. To familiarize her audience with the caste system, Burnad displayed a slide show that depicted the different forms of abuse that the Dalits, or “Untouchables,” have to confront each and every day of their existence.

“It was horrifying to see the abuse these people [endured],” Katy Lindquist ’14 said. It is encouraging to know that there are people like Burnad who are dedicating their lives to seeing these injustices eradicated, she said.

In an interview early last year with the U.S. Human Rights Network in Atlanta, Ga., Burnad expressed that her desire is to use education as a tool for emancipation. This goal resonated on Thursday night as Burnad—a great storyteller—shared her journey and her hopes.

“These Mathama children, the children who are working with the brick makers...we have to rescue the children and see that they are educated,” Burnad said in the interview last year.

Burnad believes in the power of education. Whether it’s the Mathama children or the sex workers, education is the first step toward empowerment.

Burnad is the founder and president of the Society for Rural Education and Development (SRED), a non-profit, non-governmental organization that aims to fight for and protect vulnerable people in India, especially the Untouchables, Burnad’s own caste.

In a dinner held before the lecture, Burnad talked with students and faculty about her work. Associate Professor of Government and Director of Oak Institute Walter Hatch admitted that the discussion veered away from India and the Dalits and more towards the community on the Hill, as participants discussed how the human rights violations Burnad experienced abroad in India relate to issues of prejudice on campus.

Students brought up that, though in a very different way from the women of the Dalits, many females on campus feel disrespected and abused by the male-dominated hook-up culture. However, the abuse of males in this community—the “historically superior sex”—can’t be ignored either, some argued. Many organizations such as SHOC, MAAV and The Bridge, have grown out of this need that Burnad has also realized: the need to feel safe in one’s home whether that is India or on the Hill.