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Christian Dalit women stand up for their rights

Dalit Christian Women for Change formed as a response to being looked down by Indian church and society

Christian Dalit women stand up for their rights

Dalit Christian women formed a network aimed at ending discrimination in society and the church on Feb. 13 in Bengaluru. (Photo supplied by Indian bishops' Commission for Dalits and Indigenous People)

Published: February 24, 2017 09:50 AM GMT

Updated: March 07, 2017 07:44 AM GMT

Christian women from Dalit groups in India have formed a network to curb physical and sexual abuse, foster leadership and promote education for women.

"It is a first network of Dalit Christian women to express their concerns about discrimination and injustice," Isabella Xavier, president of the newly formed Dalit Christian Women for Change told ucanews.com Feb. 24. 

She was referring to some 40 Dalit Christian women from across India who gathered in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru Feb. 13 to set up this new national-level organization. That meeting was organized by the Indian bishops' Commission for Dalits and Indigenous People.

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"Dalits, especially women, do not have any identity. We are looked down upon as outcastes even within the church," Xavier said. 

Dalit means "trampled upon" in Sanskrit and is used to denote groups of so-called "untouchables"  who are outside of India's four-tier caste system. 

Although abolished by law, untouchability in various forms continue and people of Dalit origin are not allowed to share water sources, public places and worship spaces. Some parishes in southern India have reportedly demarcated space for Dalit people in churches and cemeteries.

India has some 27 million Christians and at least 60 percent of them come from Dalit or indigenous backgrounds who struggle socially and economically.

Christian Dalits suffer further because the government denies them state benefits set aside for Hindu Dalits. Indian law allows for job and educational quotas to Hindu Dalits as a means for affirmative action but denies them to Christians and Muslims on the grounds that their religions do not recognize the caste system.

Xavier said that the situation of female Dalits is further complicated by India's patriarchal society that excludes women and leaves them vulnerable to abuse. Women have no leadership or means to speak up for their rights or education. Hence Christian Dalit women in all 180 Indian dioceses need to build leadership programs.

Father Z. Devasagayaraj, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops' Commission for Dalits and Indigenous People, said "it is high time" that issues of Dalit Christian women are brought forward but added that such a new network would be a "separate and independent entity" and not be part of the bishops' office. "But we will promote and support them," he said.

According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Dalit women experience are discriminated against because of their caste, economic situation and their gender. Dalit women often work in modern slavery and are key targets for trafficking, often used as debt slaves in brick kilns, garment industries and agriculture or "may also be born into temple prostitution as 'Devadasis' (sex slaves)  ... or be branded prostitutes due to their caste status."

About 98 percent of those forced into dehumanising work of removing human waste by hand, are Dalit women and about 70 percent of Dalit women are illiterate in rural India. 

"Dalit women are therefore considered easy targets for sexual violence and other crimes, because the perpetrators almost always get away with it," according to the website of the network that advocates for Dalit human rights nationally and internationally.


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