Touching the untouchables
Ryan Summerlin June 19, 2007
It is midday in the sweltering India heat. A man tries to concentrate on his job: wading around in raw sewage to keep pipes from clogging. He begs his boss for a flimsy paper mask to filter out a few of the fumes.
His boss storms at him, screaming that if he doesn’t get back to work this instant, he’ll be fired. He knows if he’s fired, he and his family will starve.
He lowers his eyes and returns to work.
He is an untouchable, a Dalit (pronounced Day-Leet). They are so low in India that they don’t even register at the lowest caste ” somewhat subhuman. But like all humans, they bleed, they cry, they die.
Terry will spend at least a year in India, maybe more, touching the untouchables.
Terry will be working with several organizations, helping set up healthcare systems, working with professionals and para-professionals from India and other countries. She asked that her full name not be used because those opposed to what she’s doing constantly surf the Internet looking for people headed to India to do this. She could be stopped at the border and turned away.
It’s a huge job, building something where there’s now nothing and some don’t want it built. They determine the needs ” which is everything ” then narrow them to the things they can actually do.
She’s made three trips over already ” two-week stints all on her own dime.
“With each trip my love for them grows,” she said. “There’s such a need. We have the opportunity to help others who are helpless.”
She’s trying to raise money to stay at least a year, maybe longer. She’s having a fundraiser June 23.
India has millions and millions of Dalits ” 250 million ” one in four people in India. Some wonder why they don’t rise up, why they don’t struggle to improve their lives instead of accepting their fates. It’s a legitimate question, but one only a Westerner would ask. If you keep your head down and stay in line, you’ll come back as something better in your next life. If you don’t, you’ll come back as something worse.
Or something horrible will happen to you in this life.
“You can’t look at the ground your entire life and one day decide to look people in the eye,” Terry said. “You’re forced into a way of life. Step out and the consequences are violent. You may get acid poured on you or your family might be killed.”
Those there to help Dalits are a threat to that system. If a Dalit receives an English-language education, they can go to college. “The government cannot deny them that,” said Terry.
The goal is to help Dalits break from India’s cycle of oppression and free themselves from India’s caste system, one of the most outdated hierarchies in the world. Short of that, if they can teach them a little healthcare and show them a little love, the Dalits might see that others do care about them and that their lives are worthwhile.
Terry’s voice cracks when she talks about how much the efforts mean to these people.
“They offer you their children. They say, ‘please give my child a better life,'” she said. “Dalits aren’t begging you for food or money. They are begging for prayer and acknowledgment. The Dalits simply want to be recognized as people.”
Some organizations limit people to six-month stints; Terry wanted to stay longer.
“If I’m going to do this with my life, I wanted to do it in a bigger way.”
Those that help the Dalits are sometimes targeted for harassment and abuse, even death.
In spite of all that, she’s determined to return. Last year, she traveled with a human rights/women empowerment group. They spoke to more than 3,300 women and the results were instant.
One woman, after attending the seminars and hearing that she is loved and worthwhile, vowed to stop beating her children.
Another woman told the group that she, her daughter and her mother were religious prostitutes. (In India, some women become temple prostitutes
around the age of 8 and are kicked out by the age of 30.) After participating in a conference, the woman declared her intent to step out of prostitution. She said she would be taking her daughter with her.
News of the efforts is spread mainly by word of mouth in the Dalit communities. It’s still the most effective marketing plan.
“If you hit three villages with information, it is going to spread,” Terry said. “A year or two from now they are going to have better health and more kids in school because of the tools they were given. The goal is to empower the locals to do it themselves. This lets them take responsibility and ownership.”
A Dalit’s abuse comes early and often. Among the creative ways they’re kept in line: If they’re five minutes late to work they may get acid poured on them; they’re paid much less than members of a higher caste for similar work; in some places they’re chained up at night and watched by machine gun-carrying guards by day.
“In the brick factories, they’re treated like slaves,” Terry said
Medical care is nonexistent. Most doctors don’t want to see them because they don’t want to be contaminated. If they do, they raise the charges so the Dalit spends years, maybe a lifetime, in debt to them. Banks do the same thing, as do shop owners. A little competition might fix some of that.
“Medical clinics in slum villages will alter that,” she said.
The lower the caste, the brighter the clothing the women wear. Outsiders can’t usually tell the difference, but those stuck in the caste system can pick each other out by last names, facial features and skin tone. The darker the skin the lower the caste. The brighter the clothing, the lower the caste. Rider has worked in communities so poor the women’s clothes were fluorescent.
When Dalits get a drink of water from a public fountain, they have to smash the small clay cup to make sure someone from a higher caste doesn’t mistakenly use it.
“They do want to change. They just don’t know how to do it,” Terry said.
Staff writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at email@example.com.