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From Gypsum to India

Kelly Hagenah
Special to the Daily
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GYPSUM – Last year, Gypsum resident Terri Rider was in India helping a 50-year old woman learn how to hold a toothbrush. The woman was a ‘Dalit’ – a member of the lowest social class. So low, and so oppressed are the Dalits that most have the education level and social skills of an 8-year-old. Rider, an accountant for Beaudin Ganze Consulting Engineers, volunteers with a group called the Dalit Freedom Network. The DFN exists to aid the Dalits in their quest for social freedom and human dignity, and volunteers believe the caste system in India is one of the most outdated hierarchies in the world. The 3,000-year-old caste system separates Hindu society into hereditary classes. It was developed by priests in India to maintain their superior status. Castes are distinctly separated from one another by restrictions placed on occupations, and marriage.India has four recognizable castes. At the top caste are the Brahmins, who are the priests. Next are the Kshatriyas, the soldiers and administrators; followed by the Vaisyas, or the artisan and commercial class. The fourth caste is the Sudras, the farmers and the peasants.The people DFN reaches out to aren’t even a part of the four-tiered caste system. They fall below it. These people are the Dalits, also known as ‘the untouchables.’ By caste system standards, the Dalits aren’t even considered to be people.”Even animals are treated better than these people,” Rider said.

“I don’t know where to begin,” said Rider, when asked about her involvement with DFN. Rider was at a gathering at the Eagle Valley Community Church when she first heard about DFN. “I wanted to jump on board as soon as possible,” she said. Rider was able to start helping right away because, unlike other missions, the DFN didn’t require lengthy training sessions. “These guys just said we’ll take you, and we’ll use whatever skills you have.”In India there are 250 million Dalits, meaning one out of every four people in India is considered “untouchable.” Yet, this is in a country where everybody is supposed to have equal rights. The “untouchability” of a Dalit is outlawed by the Indian constitution, but the practice still exists.DFN has four main focus areas working within the Dalit communities: education, medical resources, economic development and human rights.Each of Rider’s three trips have been completely different experiences. She has been to India three times since her first visit in 2004. And, every October she makes the trip for two weeks.The first trip was more culture shock then anything, Rider remembered.”I went in there thinking ‘I’m going to give 120 percent and do what I came to do. The funny thing is you end up receiving more than what you give out.” Rider’s first trip was spent in the southern area of Bangalor. Her 2005 trip covered the northwestern state of Punjab, and her recent 2006 trip returned her to Bangalor.Rider’s voice cracked as she explains how much the DFN effort means to these people.”They offer you their children. They say, ‘please give my child a better life,'” she said. “They aren’t begging you for food or money. They are begging for prayer and acknowledgment.”

Rider said DFN volunteers are welcomed every time they arrive in a new Dalit community. Every village hosts a welcoming ceremony, and acknowledges each volunteer individually.”They have absolutely nothing, but they give this ceremony their all,” she said. The dances and speeches continue for several hours.The people in the caste system are often identified by their clothing and hygiene. Dalit men wear a garment called a “Lungi,” which Rider said looks like a giant diaper. For the women in the caste system, the brighter the clothing is, the poorer they are. Rider has worked in communities so poor the women’s clothes were fluorescent.This year, Rider traveled with the human rights/women empowerment focus group.”I thought it was going to be fluff, but we spoke to over 3,300 women,” Rider said. She was able to see instant results with the Dalit women after the empowerment sessions.

One woman, after attending the DFN seminars and hearing a message that God loves her and her children, 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 DFN conference, the woman declared her intent to step out of prostitution. And, she said, she would be taking her daughter with her.”They do want to change. They just don’t know how to do it,” Rider said. News of the DFN effort is spread mainly by word-of-mouth in the Dalit communities. Rider said it works.”If you hit three villages with information, it is going to spread,” she 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 of the DFN is to empower the locals to do it themselves,” Rider said. “This lets them take responsibility and ownership.” She added that some Indian revolutionaries are predicting that the caste system will be abolished within their lifetime. “That is how much activity is going on,” Rider she said.This story appeared first in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado CO


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