Dr. Ana Steele is equally at home in the halls of Congress and the halls of academia. She has a masters degree from Georgetown University and masters and doctorate degrees from Johns Hopkins University. She has taught at Harvard and lobbied members of Congress for the Dalit people of India. She is intelligent, articulate, and passionate. Her passion is symbolized by a picture on her bookshelf. Among the tomes in Italian, Greek, and Russian is a close-up shot of a young Indian girl whose wide brown eyes demand your attention. What is not immediately apparent is that at the time of the photo, the girl was eleven years old, naked, and starving. The statistics this young girl represents can paralyze–caste oppression in India has existed for nearly 3,000 years and those who are termed the “untouchables” or more recently “slumdogs” number a quarter of a billion people. But this girl is a real person, not just part of the staggering statistics. You might be asking, “What can I do?”
Recently, we had the chance to ask Dr. Steele just that in our conversation about the status of the Dalit people in India today and Dalit Freedom Network USA, the organization for which she serves as president.
Good News (GN): Many of us have heard the term “untouchable,” seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, or become aware that slavery still exists in the modern world, but do not know the reality of these peoples’ lives. Can you introduce us to the Dalits and their situation?
Dr. Ana Steele (AS): The Dalits, also known as the “untouchables” and “outcastes” make up nearly one quarter of India’s 1.2 billion people, with population estimates of 250 million. The term “Dalit” means “those who have been broken and ground down by those above them in the social hierarchy in a deliberate and active way.” In a public address in December 2007, Prime Minister Singh of India became the first leader of his country to compare the practice of untouchability to the crime of apartheid. The untouchables are history’s longest standing oppressed group and constitute the largest number of people categorized as victims of modern-day slavery.
Sex trafficking, child labor, and bonded and forced labor are the primary faces of the human trafficking and modern-day slavery that plague India today. These atrocities affect the lowest classes, the Dalit and tribal people, and target India’s children.
GN: Was there a moment that stands out to you that would give us a glimpse into your experiences in India?
AS: In 2006, I took my first mission trip to India. The team was in Pondicherry hosting a medical clinic, a women’s empowerment conference, and a children’s Life day. At around 1 pm, I went downstairs to see how the children were doing. Within minutes, a very underweight, frail, elderly Dalit woman came up to me and made a hand gesture that I interpreted to mean she was asking when we were going to offer lunch. I made hand language back to let her know that we would be setting up lunch in a little while. She walked away and came back in a few minutes, and we went through the same awkward communication again. When she came back a third time, I was concerned that we were waiting too long to feed everyone, and I asked the translator when lunch would be served. The translator replied, “She’s not asking you to feed her; she’s asking if you got something to eat.” That story sums up so poignantly the tender, hospitable, generous, and magnanimous heart of India’s poorest, most downtrodden and forgotten people, the Dalits.
GN: You mentioned that it is the Dalit children of India who are the most at risk. What are the daily implications of untouchability for children?
AS: One way to answer this is to look at the education opportunities afforded to Dalit children. According to a 2006 UN Special Rapporteur’s Report on the Right to Education in India, 99% of Dalit children, if they go to school at all, attend government schools. The Rapporteur found that untouchability was practiced in government schools. Dalit children were verbally and physically abused by their classmates and teachers alike; they were segregated in the classroom; they were made to clean the school’s dry latrines and remove human excrement from the latrines and carry it to a dumping site by hand with no gloves or protective gear. One government teacher remarked that Dalit children had to be beaten in order to learn. Another teacher was in the practice of pouring cow’s urine over Dalit children’s heads to purify them so they could learn.
GN: With a system where abuse is so pervasive, does a genuine opportunity for change exist?
AS: Yes, absolutely. I read once that education changes a nation and that it can solve all other problems. We see the truth of these statements being borne out in 100 communities across India where we have established Dalit Education Centers that are now educating nearly 25,000 of India’s most at-risk children.
GN: Describe the Dalit Education Centers and how they operate.
AS: In our Dalit Education Centers, children are learning in a loving, values-based, caste-blind, English-medium classroom. They are being raised up to become the next generation of educated Dalit thinkers and agents of change. Thirty percent of the students in our schools are the children of bonded laborers, but these students won’t become bonded or enslaved because of the opportunities that are available to them and the empowerment that comes from a quality, English-based education. Their education is being sponsored by Americans, mostly from the faith community, who know that a Dalit child can actually be freed from a life of bondage through the gift of education.
GN: How does the impact of a DEC extend beyond the classroom and into the community?
AS: Wherever there is a Dalit Education Centers, we launch a healthcare initiative for the children and the community. Proper healthcare is often beyond the reach of Dalits, and yet it is this group who suffer enormously from common, curable maladies. Simple fractures often go untreated and result in crippling malformations. Dalits also suffer from diseases that are virtually unseen in developed nations, such as polio, tuberculosis, untreated diabetes, and leprosy.
GN: Tell us more about The Dalit Freedom Network Healthcare Program.
AS: It is the first comprehensive healthcare program for Dalits. The four-part program consists of visiting North American medical teams, regional medical clinics, a Community Health Worker (CHW) at each Dalit Education Center location, and a scholarship fund for Dalit students to pursue medical studies. As Dalits gain access to hygiene training and healthcare for the first time, they are empowered to live healthier, more dignified lives.
GN: Many of us believed that bonded slavery is a thing of the past, but you have mentioned it in relationship to India. Who are the bonded slaves of India? Is there a way to literally release their bonds?
AS: In debt to landlords, money lenders, doctors, priests, grocers, and others, most Dalits work hand-to-mouth and remain in extreme poverty their entire lives. Many are forced to borrow as little as a few hundred dollars for an unforeseen family emergency from a corrupt village moneylender who then charges fraudulent fees and exorbitant monthly interest rates that they can never repay. The result is a debt bondage that is passed on to their children and their children’s children. Through vocational training, self-help groups, finance management and a fair-rate loan program, the Dalit Freedom Network enables Dalit men and women to provide for their families with dignity and to be hopeful about their economic future. Our micro-loan program reports a 98% payback rate and continues to be a phenomenal source of ongoing empowerment for thousands of Dalits. As loans are repaid and interest is earned, the funds are redistributed to new applicants. Through these initiatives, Dalit men and women move toward providing for their families and protecting themselves from joblessness without compromising their inherent value as human beings.
GN: What are some of the overarching goals of Dalit Freedom Network?
AS: Dalit Freedom Network USA was created in response to three compelling pleas that Dalit leaders issued in 2000: Be our voice! Free our children! Free our women! Dalit Freedom Network is committed to joining the Dalits in their fight for safety, human dignity, and equality under the law. Our mission can be summed up in a few words: Seek Justice. Provide Mercy. Or, put another way: Raise Awareness. Raise Resources. We accomplish our mission through four programming areas: Social Justice, Education, Healthcare, and Economic Development. Our first-phase goal is holistic community transformation for 1,000 communities in India.
GN: With the stakes so high and the prejudice so deeply entrenched in Indian society, how do those who work in this field maintain their passion?
AS: To be a voice for the voiceless is a privilege; everyone who works at Dalit Freedom Network also thinks of it as a deep responsibility. We are able to take up this monumental task to seek justice for 250 million downtrodden Dalits who live on the other side of the world by keeping before us a steady understanding of Christian human rights. To quote John Stott on human rights from his book New Issues Facing Christians Today: “Because human beings have all been made in the same image by the same Creator, therefore we must not be obsequious to some and scornful to others, but behave without partiality to all Because God has laid it upon us to love and serve our neighbors, therefore we must fight for their rights, while being ready to renounce our own in order to do so.”
As the president of Dalit Freedom Network USA, I operate on the premise that America needs to know about the Dalits and on the belief that if America knew, America would care, and would take action. For several years, all of us who have been a part of the Dalit freedom movement in the U.S. have seen just this. Americans in the faith community, Americans who serve as our nation’s leaders and lawmakers, Americans in business, entertainment, medicine, and nearly every sector of our society who have heard about the Dalits and the discrimination, dehumanization, violence, and enslavement that threatens them every day, respond in the same way I did when I heard about the Dalits in 2005: “I am horrified–What do you need most?”
GN: What will the next several months involve for Dalit Freedom Network?
AS: We have sent a letter to President and Mrs. Obama in advance of their official November State visit to India that briefs them on the plight of the Dalits and asks them to consider two non-political gestures while they are in India that would add substantive fuel and encouragement to the Dalit civil rights movement. We are gearing up to give testimony before a Congressional hearing on the recent Trafficking in Persons Report issued annually by our State Department and we are identifying the top six global women’s movements with headquarters in the U.S. as we prepare for a round of meetings to present proposals for partnership to address the oppression that Dalit women face because of their gender, extreme poverty, and placement below animals in the hierarchal structures of India’s society.
GN: Thank you for your time and for your efforts on behalf of the Dalit. We have been deeply moved and challenged by your words. Many of us are indeed left saying, “I am horrified–What do you need most?”
AS: I invite any reader who wants to join this global movement of God to consider sponsoring the education of a child, which is the first step to freedom for a Dalit child. To learn more about the Dalit Freedom Network, log on at www.dalitnetwork.org, contact us at [email protected], or call us at 202-375-5000.