SUNSHINE Coast Daily editor in chief Mark Furler walked 42 kilometres last Saturday with his son Caleb as part of a fundraiser for children in India. Here he tells why.
THEY are considered the lowest of the low - India's "untouchables" and there are more than 300 million of them.
The Dalits face oppression, hunger, extreme poverty and sexual exploitation.
An insidious industry has developed which sees young boys and girls taken from their parents and sold into the sex slave trade.
There are even reports of whole villages where young girls are "groomed" to service the sex industry throughout the sub-continent and beyond.
Some are injected with hormones to bring on puberty earlier so they can begin their "careers".
Others become bonded labourers, saddled with spiralling debts which they will never be able to work their way out of. Dalits are expected to perform menial, degrading tasks that include unclogging sewers, disposing of dead bodies and cleaning latrines.
According to the Human Rights Education Movement of India, every hour, two Dalits are assaulted, three Dalit women raped, two Dalits murdered and two Dalit houses burned, yet only 1% of those who commit crimes against Dalits are ever convicted.
Their home is the setting for movies like Slumdog Millionaire - but without the Hollywood ending.
Slightly above the Dalits are the "Other Backward Castes" or OBCs as they are known. There are another 400 million of them.
The problems seem insurmountable. But they are not - not if they are tackled one child at a time.
Gospel for Asia is looking after about 70,000 children as part of its Bridge of Hope program which ensures children are fed, clothed and given schooling.
The organisation, founded by K.P. Yohannan in 1978, wants to reach at least 500,000.
Last weekend, almost 220 people from churches and schools from across Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast joined the fourth annual Bridge Marathon - a 42km walk to raise money for the programs.
About $50,000 was raised with passionate young people swelling the numbers, including dozens from Northside Christian College.
For Australian directors of Gospel of Asia, Geoff Darr and his wife Monica, the walk is one way to bring the story of the Dalits to Australians - to have people walk a mile in their shoes.
Geoff and his wife, who were missionaries in South America, became involved after reading a book, Revolution in World Missions, by the founder of GFA.
Geoff said so many more children needed to be rescued.
"They are usually kidnapped at about one year and six months," he said. "They (the kidnappers) raise them as their own but they are grooming them to sell.
"There are entire villages where they are groomed to be prostitutes.''
Enticed with offers of jobs, they can be snatched from railway stations or towns.
"It's just like an insidious trade in flesh," Geoff said. "We are attacking it one at a time.''
Each year hundreds are graduating from schooling after attending the Bridge of Hope centres. The most talented will go to university while others will learn trades.
Raising awareness of the problem in wealthy Western nations ensures funds flow to where they are needed. Gospel for Asia says 100% of funds raised go to the field.
Unashamedly Christian, the organisation says by learning they are valued by God, the children are liberated from the caste system which declares them worthless and not even worthy to drink water from community wells.
The work is unending but if the passion of young people involved in last weekend's marathon is anything to go by, the vital ministry will go the distance.
IMAGINE LIFE AS A DALIT CHILD
AS YOU stand in the filthy mud that is the road outside your hut, imagine feeling in your very being that you are utterly worthless. From the time of your earliest memories you have felt this deep inside, where it hurts the most.
Neither you nor anyone else in your family is allowed to drink water from the village well, walk down particular roads or enter certain buildings or places of worship. Your very presence contaminates such places. Indeed, even touching a high caste person pollutes him. Your life is valueless. The death of a cow wandering the streets is considered a greater loss than your own.
You go to bed hungry almost every night. You have never held a bar of soap, eaten an ice cream cone, played in the sand with a toy truck or cradled a doll. Survival is your only goal.
Perhaps your parents have sent you to labour in a fireworks or carpet factory, dig in a rock quarry or coal mine or toil in a rice or tea plantation.
You work to pay off an old family debt that only seems to get larger no matter how hard you try. Or perhaps you stay home to help your sick mother, carry water and care for younger siblings.
Other village children, dressed neatly in school uniforms, head off to the classroom each morning, but your family cannot afford that luxury.
In India, 63% of Dalits are illiterate, and in some areas, the rate is as high as 95%. Dalit incomes average less than $40 per year.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Go to gospelforasia.org.au or
Phone 1300889339 for more information.
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