WASHINGTON — In 2001, Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza founded the Dalit Freedom Network to advocate for the rights of India’s Dalits — or “untouchables” — and tribals, who for centuries have suffered under the oppressive caste system despite having among their number great, historic leaders like the author of India’s constitution, B.R. Ambedkar. Now, after fulfilling its mission to awaken the world’s conscience to their plight, the organization is broadening its scope to advocate for the forgotten outcastes and marginalized groups of South Asia and other nations.
“Our organization was born as a response to the cry of millions of Indians who for generations have been ostracized and consigned to poverty and human indignity because of their birth alone,” said D’Souza, who in addition to serving as the international president and founder of the network presides as moderator bishop over the Good Shepherd Church of India.
“From the beginning our mission has been to affirm and help restore their God-given dignity as his image bearers. This expansion builds another layer upon our original mission as we continue to be one of the foremost advocates for the world’s outcastes and marginalized groups.”
Building on 17 years of successfully lifting marginalized people out of poverty and social disenfranchisement through education, health care, anti-trafficking and community development programs, the Dalit Freedom Network will become the Dignity Freedom Network. The organization will retain its well-known acronym “DFN,” and continue its international humanitarian aid programs and advocacy through a coalition now present in over a dozen countries.
“Joseph D’Souza easily one of the most influential people in the world, but it’s not just because of his noteworthy stature within the global church and humanitarian communities, it is because of what he has achieved for millions of people whom the world has forgotten,” said Rev. Johnnie Moore, president of The Congress of Christian Leaders.
“Not a day goes by when Bishop D’Souza doesn’t notice the marginalized and outcastes of South Asia and work relentlessly on their behalf. He’s on a mission to make the world a better place — a place where the disenfranchised are no longer overlooked and where every person’s dignity is never disregarded. I do not know a more important organization than this one.”
The so-called “outcastes” are members of people groups in South Asia considered of low-caste birth or born outside the caste system, as is the case with the Dalits. They number in the hundreds of millions throughout India, Nepal, Sri-Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh and even nations like South Africa and Kenya. Collectively, they form the largest marginalized people group in the world. The issue of caste often transcends other vexing issues related to poverty, the rights of women and girls as well as other social conditions which are endemic in many parts of South Asia.
“Deliverance from poverty, oppression and disenfranchisement often begins with a question of human dignity,” Bishop D’Souza said. “We are determined to ensure everyone recognizes that dignity isn’t something to be granted by society but a condition already given by God. Every society must cease to deny human dignity from the least fortunate.”
Centuries of discrimination, harassment and violence against these outcastes have resulted in extreme poverty, limited access to health care and educational disadvantage, putting them at risk of exploitation, human trafficking and disease. A recent U.N. report revealed Dalit women in India die on average 14.6 years younger than women of higher castes.
D’Souza has called their plight the “single greatest civil rights concern in human history.” In his roles as international president of Dignity Freedom Network and moderator bishop of the Good Shepherd Church of India, he has advocated for the Dalits and outcastes before international human rights forums and government bodies. He has testified on Dalit rights before European political bodies, including the U.K. Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and served as an expert witness before a U.S. Congressional Subcommittee hearing on caste-based discrimination. He also has been a witness at various United Nations’ hearings including before the Geneva-based Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.
Compelled to not only advocate for the outcastes but also help them physically restore their dignity, find economic security and attain freedom, the network has launched English medium schools, health care, anti-trafficking and economic development programs. DFN specifically focuses on villages and communities who would otherwise not have access to similar programs. Dignity Freedom Network’s work does not discriminate on the basis of religion, caste or ethnic identities.
Today, Dignity Freedom Network operates 104 schools that provide a high-quality English education to 27,000 children in India. In the past eight years, the schools have graduated more than 2,300 children, with over 70 percent of them proceeding to universities and attaining careers as tradesmen, entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, IT specialists and doctoral research candidates.
D’Souza says other than giving an English medium education, the schools also focus on others issues like addressing gender inequality.
“Our boys and girls are taught about their equality and dignity as God’s image bearers,” Bishop D’Souza said. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for any form of sexual harassment. In fact, we are directly challenging the pervasive culture of sexual abuse in India.”
As the issue of sexual harassment and violence continues to dominate national and international headlines, the Dignity Freedom Network has stepped into action with its celebrated anti-trafficking and women empowerment initiatives. Dignity Freedom Network was one of the earliest groups to highlight the problem of gender-selective abortions and female foeticide, a cause the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, has taken up in his “Save girl child” initiative.
In states like Telangana, the network works in cooperation with the local government to bring freedom to women who are victims of the persistent Jogini ritualized prostitution system. Government figures suggest that about 50,000 women are victims of this system. DFN identifies these women and works with them to provide a social, emotional, physical and economic path to freedom with the ultimate goal of helping them end this ancient injustice in their own communities. As part of the program, the young women are provided vocational training and health care assistance, as many of them have contracted chronic illnesses.
“This is not simply a rescue operation but a holistic program that results in the full-scale transformation of their communities from within,” Bishop D’Souza said. “We are helping these women discover their dignity and giving them the tools to fight for their rights and break a centuries-old system of disenfranchisement and abuse.”
Overall, the Dignity Freedom Network’s English medium schools and health care, anti-trafficking, and economic development programs have directly impacted an estimated 14 million people. The network’s impact presently extends to 6,000 communities across India. Its Life Augmentation Management Program (LAMP), which teaches women a trade and how to start and market their businesses, has secured over $2.8 million in microloans from local banks for women in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu.
“The vision for the newly-named Dignity Freedom Network is to see the transformation of millions of lives, and to pull the best out of the beautiful and intriguing history of beloved India and South Asia,” Bishop D’Souza said. “There is freedom and power in realizing one’s dignity. This is our hope for the Dalits in India and vulnerable communities across the world.”
Dignity Freedom Network now has invitations from community leaders in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma and even Africa and East Asia, who want the network’s successful programs in their communities.
“This new name linked to human dignity captures the essence of how God creates, affrims and loves people regardless of nationality, religion, race, caste and ethnicity,” said Pastor Matthew Cork, ambassador-at-large for DFN International. “DFN networks and works with everyone who believes all humans are made in the image of God. The expansion of Dignity Freedom Network brings a much needed message even to Western societies.”
Media note: Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is available for interview in studio, through Skype and via phone and email. To schedule an interview please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos of Joseph D’Souza are available here.
Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is the moderator bishop — or archbishop according to Anglican tradition — of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India. He also serves as the president of the All India Christian Council and is the founder and international president of Dignity Freedom Network. He is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades for his work as a civil rights activist. Additional biographical information is available here.