Today was a culmination of a lot of experiences for me. This day seemed to mark the beginning of something. I met our first five potential women that could be sewing our baby blankets. We prepared an initial intake interview to get a sense of their current situation and I had a simple sewing sample for them to complete to assess their skill levels.
I greeted each and every individual women by shaking their hands and learned their names…Rani, Rachel, Latika, Beena, and Philomina. Most of these women were my age or younger, but looked 10 times their years. They have never been employed in their lives and their husbands are either day laborers or do menial side jobs. Many of them survive on 500 rupees a week = $10. One of them is HIV+. They struggle with making ends meet and very few of them have savings. But despite their condition I was met with beams of joy.
Trivandrum is like a breath of fresh air. The swaying palm trees and the sprawling beaches reminded me a bit of my own childhood in Hawaii. Keren and Promoth, our partners with Women in Rural Development picked us up at the airport. Their bubbly two year old daughter gave us a big hug!
Our journey continues here as we begin dialoging with Keren and her father Moses Swamidas about developing the sewing center. Their stories are unique. They are Dalits. Dalit means broken or suppressed. The Hindu caste system is made up of four main castes or classes. Dalits are considered so low that they are not even in the caste system. They’re social and spiritual outcasts (and thus “untouchable”). And because of this they’ve suffered alarming discrimination and have not been given equal access to gainful employment and a proper education.
Moses and his family lead an organization that seeks holistic renewal among the Dalits: social, physical and spiritual. They are revolutionaries fighting an uphill battle, advocating for the rights of their own people. Many choose not to hear their pleas, but they continue to fight and have done so for almost 30 years.
Keren has shared with us her own personal journey as a Dalit woman. Dalits are the lowest; but to be a Dalit woman is the lowest of the low. In school she would often avoid telling her classmates that she was a Dalit fearing they wouldn’t befriend her. Many Dalits are also darker skinned and the Indian culture tends to prefer fair skinned people. When it comes to the Indian tradition of arranged marriages, many families shy away from darker skinned people, labeling them undesirable and even calling them ugly.
My hope is that through our work, we would begin changing these perceptions. Providing dignified work and a fair wage will stabilize families writhing in poverty and provide resources for their children to get a proper education. Education then opens doors for the next generation to compete for better jobs and a better living.
Education and relief from poverty also closes the door to opportunities for labor and sex trafficking. Families will no longer need to sell their daughters to feed their families. And boys and girls will be able to explore their inborn gifts and talents and understand their inherent value as beautiful children of God. Our hope is that they will NO longer be called undesirable, ugly or untouchable. We’ve seen courageous people in Kolkata redeeming the lives of those who’ve been in the sex-trade. Our plan is to work at the source and stop it from the beginning.