I recently returned from a trip to India with my oldest daughter. Beautiful, exotic country. Amazing developmental potential. Seemingly limitless foreign investment. Archaic social infrastructure. Never have I — as a woman raised in the West — witnessed, imagined or experienced such oppression.
As it is in India, what today are referred to as “slumdogs” — the 250 million subcaste members (meaning sub-human, below the four acknowledged/”legitimate human” castes under the feet of India’s 1.2 billion people) — can not vote. They are Dalits. Translated, their name means “broken underfoot.” They can not hold property, they can not better themselves. They are frequently enslaved, murdered, beaten and raped. Sadly, it’s not just the stuff of Hollywood. I have heard it compared to the Apartheid movement of South Africa. The difference: In South Africa, the majority blacks could legitimately vote along with their minority white counterparts. Apartheid was overturned. Nelson Mandela was inaugurated…
Today, I received an email which shared excerpts of a letter sent to Nancy Pelosi in 2007 and, again, in 2010 to First Lady Michelle Obama. Here are some excerpts authored by Dalit women:
We who have signed our names to this letter are the Dalit women of India. We are history’s longest standing oppressed people group, and by all reports the largest number of people categorized as victims of modern-day slavery.
We are also known by the demeaning labels “untouchables,” “outcastes,” and most recently “slumdogs.” We have been born “untouchable” according to the hierarchical social system of India, which considers us impure, subhuman, godforsaken, and deserving of our present suffering in this life because of our bad deeds in a past life. In this hierarchy, we are placed below animals. We have been told—and most of us agree—that it would be better if we had never been born.
There are 250 million “untouchables” in India today. We are denied education, healthcare, economic opportunity, and basic civil liberties that other citizens in our country enjoy. We are dying from AIDS, malaria, TB, and other diseases that we could prevent with vaccinations and proper care. Few of us own land or our own businesses. Most of us do not have access to clean water and are forbidden to draw water from the wells in our villages. Hundreds of thousands of our children as young as five years old work 12 or more hours a day, six or seven days a week. By the time our children turn eight, they are already slaves in their own minds.
Our lives and the lives of our daughters can be among the very hardest in India. We know that the only thing worse than being born a Dalit is to be born a Dalit female. We are raped as girls. We are sold to religious temples as prostitutes as young as age four to be used in sexual acts of worship. Some of us who will live to become widows will choose “sati,” throwing ourselves on our husband’s funeral pyre to spare ourselves a life of begging and starvation on the streets of India.
Let’s hope the letter gets read.
This is not myth. I was there. My daughter was there. Thanks to burgeoning Bollywood and the overflow of outsourcing from developed nations, India could more than afford to take care of their own. But sadly, because the Dalit are not considered “human,” they will never be cared for within this outdated, inane system. And the only thing worse than being a Dalit? Being a Dalit woman or girl. Look into the eyes of a four year-old who has already been dedicated to serve as a temple prostitute and consider the system that would allow it to happen (while it is theoretically outlawed, the state still gets a cut of every holy trick turned in a temple). I even saw a soda sponsorship banner draping the entry into a temple of prostitution we toured. On all levels, it is officially sanctioned trafficking…and it is wrong.
In his book, Truth and Transformation, respected Indian-born activist Vishal Mangalwadi put it best when describing the Western perception of these people based on what was seen in the 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire: ” The film powerfully portrays the evils that dehumanize the “filthy” rich and the powerless poor in India, but it does not even pretend to explain how such evils can rule a democratic country. Neither the film nor its hero has any strategy to fight evil. In fact, the film has no hero. Viewers feel good only because blind luck helps the lead character win millions and his beloved.” The hero wins millions of dollars, but what of the hundreds of millions of other Dalits? His girlfriend is rescued, but what becomes of the girl who is infected with HIV by a man carrying the virus who — in keeping with Hindu tradition — is “allowed” have sex with subcastes in order to maintain the virtue of his betrothed?
During my brief time in India, I routinely witnessed men put before women for all levels of need. We saw a woman beaten for preparing the wrong food for a group of construction workers. Female infanticide is also a regular practice in desperately poor villages. Newborn girls are given a rice cake to choke on or poisoned due to the economic hardship they present their impoverished family. It is hard to believe but even within their own subcaste, Dalit women are considered at the bottom; they are only slightly better-off than Dalit widows, disabled and orphans. Despite the appearance of making a progressive climb, India embodies a sick system, an ailing nation. I believe that if enough external pressure is brought to bear, things can change. But, as with South Africa, it will not happen without pressure…
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world ~ James 1:27
Want an adventure? Create change. March 8 was International Women’s Day…but Dalit life continues to go on. For the month of March, celebrate women — your mom, your sister, your daughter — by thinking about this deeply disturbing system. What can you do? Really. What does your faith mean in the midst of all that you know? Contact organizations like International Justice Mission, Operation Mobilization or The Dalit Freedom Network. The system can’t change until brokenness is acknowledged.