Indian women of the “untouchable” caste increase their economic and social standing after converting to Christianity, a recent study by Berkley Center research fellow Rebecca Shah shows.

The research, presented at the Dec. 13-14 “Christianity and Freedom” conference in Rome as part of Georgetown University’s Christianity and Freedom initiative, focused on Dalit women in a violent Indian slum and related both the community and tenets of Christianity to a willingness to invest in their personal, economic and social future.

“What actually keeps the poor in poverty and keeps them in persistent poverty is this sort of fear of investing in the future, a fear of long-term investments,” Shah said.

According to Shah, Christianity is an important factor in changing this fearful mindset. Much of the change in the converted women’s behaviors stems from a sense of belonging in the supportive community Christianity brings.

“One thing we noticed with these women was being part of the [Christian] community … it sort of gave them the sense of some sort of hope that the future was attainable,” Shah said.

The close community additionally caused some women to sense a change in identity.

“There is a sense of belief that ‘I can make a difference, I can invest in my children’s future,’ and that to a great extent comes by their involvement in these independent churches,” Shah said.

Shah noted in her findings that although the Christian women were more often faced with domestic violence, in part due to the new independence that comes with converting, these converts were more likely to tell someone about the violence. Sixty-three percent of converted Christians experienced domestic abuse, with 57 percent reporting the incidents. By contrast, only 7 percent of Hindu victims reported abuse, while there were no reports from Muslim women, according to Shah.

Allen Hertzke, co-chair of the Christianity and Freedom initiative’s steering committee, attributed the change in identity and newfound independence to the conversion experience itself, not just the presence of a strong community.

“So it’s not just the fact that Christianity is instrumental in creating this sense of community or community networks or community support, but that the Christian message and the Christian conversion experience itself actually shaped the way these women saw themselves,” Hertzke said.

Robert Woodberry, another researcher who presented his findings at the conference, additionally attributed the change in behavior of Dalit women to factors involving Christianity beyond the community aspect. Woodberry believes changes in views on identity and self-worth were primarily due to the tenets of Christianity.

“In terms of theological beliefs, the idea that everyone is created in God’s image … is a theological resource within Christianity that can transform people,” Woodberry said.

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