.- Even in contemporary culture, India's Dalits or “untouchables” face oppression and persecution akin to slavery, an American pastor involved in humanitarian work said.
“Modern day slavery is alive and well in India,” Pastor Matthew Cork told CNA, “and there's something we can do about it.”
At 250 million people, the Dalit community makes up nearly one quarter of the country's population, yet are considered too lowly to even be assigned a caste.
These people, Cork said, “have no rights, no opportunities, no chance at good jobs,” and according to the caste system, are “considered less than animals.”
Human trafficking, which the UN defines as the exploitation of people for the purpose of sexual acts, forced labor, slavery – or practices similar to slavery – could affect up to 100 million Indians, according to the Dalit Freedom Network.
One form of trafficking that is all too common in India is bonded labor, which the Dalit Freedom Network calls, “modern day slavery, with debt acting as the chains.”
Twenty million people in India, 15 million of whom are children, are forced into harsh working conditions where they receive little pay, often times to work off a debt that is not even in their name.
Many workers are forced to perform back-breaking labor in stone quarries, agricultural fields and factories under terms and contracts that can be changed at any time. As a result, many die in bondage, passing along their debts to their children.
Cork, who pastors the 5,000 member Friends Church in Yorba Linda, Calif. said he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” for the life he had compared to those he met when he first visited India in 2007.
At the same time, he said he felt “convicted” to help the Dalit people in a tangible way.
He realized that his church, which is located in the fifth wealthiest zip code in the United States, provided the ideal opportunity to reach out and help India's “poorest of the poor.”
As he read scripture, Cork said he realized that building schools was both his – and his congregation's– personal “opportunity” and “duty” to God.
In order to “be a follower of Jesus (and) actually do what his word said,” his church needed to take more action, he said.
Involved in building Good Shepard schools throughout India with the help of Operation Mobilisation since 2004, Friends Church is now the single largest organization supporting the Dalit Freedom Network in their goal to end Dalit trafficking through the education of children.
“Education is the gift to their freedom,” Cork said, “because without education, they're not able to get a good job, they're not able to go to college, they're not able to put themselves in a place of competition with the rest of India.”
So far, Friends Church has contributed enough money to provide 20 percent of financial support for the Dalit Freedom Network's goal of building 1,000 schools.
Cork explained that, “just because we've been given the opportunity in America and have means, doesn't mean we can keep it all to ourselves.”
Dalit Freedom Network has focused on building schools in order to end human trafficking because, although Dalit children have been exposed to caste discrimination, “it hasn't been ingrained in them,” the way it has in their parents, Cork said.
And once children receive an education, “there's many things can take place,” he said.
The easiest way for people to become involved in ending human trafficking in India, Cork said, is to sponsor a child through the Dalit Freedom Network.
“Once you bring freedom to one, you have an opportunity to change the world,” Cork said.
To sponsor a child, or to learn more about the Dalit Freedom Network's work to end human trafficking, visit dalitnetwork.org.