A human rights group in India says Christianity has brought slow but lasting change to the country's Dalits or “untouchables,” especially for the community's women who are often victims of prostitution and human trafficking.
“The Dalits are told that they are less than animals and we tell them they are not,” non-profit director Jeevaline Kumar told CNA, “because they are made in the likeness of God.”
Kumar – who heads up Operation Mobilisation's Anti-Human Trafficking Project in Bangalore, Karnataka – explained that the simple message that every person created in God's image has transformed the lives of India's Dalits.
“They are crying out for a change now that they know they can live differently,” she said.
At roughly 250 million people, Dalits make up close to one quarter of the country's 1.2 billion member population but, according to the caste system, are seen as inherently impure and worthless.
“It is not normal in our world for how these people are treated,” Kumar said.
Although caste discrimination, not the caste system itself, was technically outlawed in 1950 after India won its independence from Great Britain, law enforcement is still lacking.
Dalit women bear the brunt of caste discrimination, Kumar added, since women are looked upon even more unfavorably in Indian culture as they will need to be married off at the expense of their parents.
“The women are the Dalits of the Dalits,” Kumar said, explaining that many of them are forced into lives of prostitution, cleaning human waste or being aborted as soon as their gender is learned.
Prostitution, either in a brothel or as a temple “devadasi,” is among one of the greatest risks that threaten Dalit girls and women.
Even though the caste system teaches that they are impure, Kumar said that “when it comes to sex, no one thinks of them as untouchable.”
Three million people in India are forced into lives of sex-trafficking, 1.2 million of whom are children and 250,000 of whom are enslaved for “ritualized temple prostitution,”According to the Dalit Freedom Network.
“A little help can change the lives of these girls,” she said.
Her organization, which is just “one of many that works towards the same goal,” is striving to promote the message that “there is value in every human being” by responding to “Jesus' mandate” to “love thy neighbor.”
Her work with the Tarika Institute, a school that trains women who have rescued from prostitution in tailoring, spoken English and computer skills, has been especially inspiring, she said.
“I have known God like never before after I got involved in acts of justice,” she said. “It really brings meaning and fulfillment in anyone's life.”
Recently, Kumar helped organize a graduation ceremony for 106 women who completed courses with the Tarika Institute.
“Many of them have come and tell me, 'We have never been treated like this, we were treated like rubbish before and you honored us on stage,'” she said.
Most of the women Kumar has worked with never had a “proper childhood” due to caste discrimination, but the message of the Gospel “gives them so much dignity and worth,” she said, “they just feel they are regaining their childhood.”