ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Empowering Women: The Daughters of the Heart of Mary

Through their schools of higher learning, the Daughters of the Heart of Mary empower marginalized women in India.

Where to, Bombay? Bombay, the commercial hub of India and one of its most vibrant and diverse cities, was ablaze with riots after the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in November 1992. With the faculty and students from the College of Social Work, several members of the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, or DHMs, worked with the government, police, muhalla committees (area committees) and voluntary organizations in the riot areas to reconcile the Hindu and Muslim communities.

Josephine, a young DHM, began by visiting Mushafirkhana, a pilgrim center in south Bombay where Muslims from all over India stay before they leave on pilgrimage for Mecca. About 4,000 Muslims sought refuge here during and after the riots.

“In tears, all the women gave their accounts of how inhumanely they were treated during the riots,” Josephine recalled. There were pathetic stories of houses stoned and looted, acid bottles thrown, possessions burnt and children and husbands killed.

“A 45-year-old woman with nine children came to me weeping. Her husband was killed and his body cut into pieces with a sword. Her eldest son was a 17-year-old boy [who could do little to protect her from the threats that] she and her children would be burned.

“Even at this critical time,” Josephine added, “I felt the foundational charism of the DHMs come alive while serving the people of Bombay.”

“Why not in the whole world?” was the far-reaching question of the founders of the DHMs, Marie Adelaide de Cice and Pierre Joseph de Cloriviere, S.J. In 1790, in the midst of the violent political and social upheavals of the French Revolution, they were inspired to found a new form of religious life “adapted to the circumstances.”

The religious society they founded was named the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. Members of this society would live in the world without any exterior sign, symbol or habit and they would follow the Blessed Mother as the model of their love for Christ and for others.

In 1951, in keeping with Pope Pius XII’s appeal for missionaries for Africa and Asia, several daring and adventurous European and North American DHMs ventured to the subcontinent of India. Providential circumstances, in line with the vision of the founders, drew them to Bombay in 1955. This was the beginning of the Institute of Social Service, which has, for more than 30 years, been associated with CNEWA.

The early DHMs realized that the key to the new nation’s development (India achieved independence in 1947) lay in the empowerment of women. The role of women is crucial to the health and well-being of any family and all societies. Educating and strengthening the potential of women, not with knowledge and skills alone, but recognizing women’s human beauty and dignity, became the DHMs’ goal and objective.

India’s development demanded not only material relief, these pioneers concluded, but a sensitivity to social reality and insightful, committed action as well. Thus in Bombay, the founding members, through the Institute of Social Service, created a program to train young women and men as professional social workers. The College of Social Work draws students from the local population who are educated and committed to resolving India’s social problems, such as widespread poverty, rampant sickness, unemployment, illiteracy and social inequality.

The College of Social Work was accredited as a postgraduate institution of the University of Bombay in 1965. Since 1969, the college has offered undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work. Although located in the heart of Bombay, the college reaches out to urban, rural and tribal populations through its field placements and various programs, which include:

• Advocacy programs and projects for women afflicted by domestic violence and dowry harassment.

• Literacy campaigns for children of the urban poor and informal education services for youth and women.

• Programs for street children, child laborers and children victimized by the sex trade.

• Environmental awareness and health programs for sanitation workers.

• Community harmony programs.

Whether in crisis intervention, as in the Bombay riots, or in emergency relief, faculty and students – in keeping with the charism of the Society – are ready and responsive to the needs of the people.

Another important landmark in the history of the DHMs in Bombay was the opening of the College of Home Science in 1955. The college was established to prepare young women – especially those who, for cultural and social reasons, could not benefit from traditional academic programs – for their responsibilities as wives and mothers, to enable them to render careful and loving service to the family and, ultimately, to the country.

The College of Home Science has two distinct sections. The home science program advances two and three-year courses in home science, as well as a Master’s Degree that offers tracks in child development and family relations, nutrition and dietetics, and textile and clothing training.

In response to the growing needs of young city women who are looking to develop or sharpen their skills – usually to augment their family incomes – the College of Home Science also extends a polytechnic department that includes courses in secretarial practice, international travel, nursery school education, medical technology, and interior and textile design.

Today the College of Home Science, which began with 13 eager students and two faculty members, numbers more than 2,000 students and 80 teachers. The college offers students undergraduate and graduate courses accredited to the University of Bombay.

The colleges of Social Work and Home Science – animated by the charism of the founders of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary – are preparing young women and men to face India’s rapidly changing society. And through their course work, these students are learning to use their talents and skills to create a more humane environment, especially for those less fortunate than themselves.

In recognition of the DHMs’ tremendous service to the people of India, CNEWA established a substantial perpetual endowment in 1987, providing the DHMs with the necessary financial support to expand the programs of the institute of Social Service.

India’s Daughters of the Heart of Mary continue to serve the church and the country in forming young women called to follow this unique way of life, which is indeed relevant even in India’s diverse ethos and culture. Our charism, although European in origin, enables us to understand and respect the customs of our people, and to learn and receive from all faiths, especially in a time of resentment against Catholic religious and simmering religious fundamentalism.

“As Indian DHMs,” reflected Dr. Hazel D’Lima, the Provincial of India, “we seek to be God-centered in our consecrated life, to be women of prayer with a discerning spirit and to listen to God’s voice speaking to our hearts: ‘I’ve seen the plight of my people and I send you among them.’

“God is incarnate in the lives and struggle of the Indian people. In solidarity with the church, and graced with courage and love, we try to live the social significance of our religious life in our challenging society.”

Dr. Gracy Fernandes is Research Director of the Institute of Social Service, Bombay.

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