A mother tries to console her frightened child at St. Christina’s Home, Trichur, Kerala. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
The civilization of a nation is to be judged by the way it treats its women, asserted the Hindu philosopher and social reformer Vivekananda at the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893.
Today there are attempts by both foreign and domestic organizations to promote the dignity of women in India, states Mrs. Kamini Desai Sanghvi, our program administrator for that country.
In classical Hinduism the role of women was equal to that of men. However the development of popular Hinduism after the 12th century changed this [India is more than 80 percent Hindu]. Now women are segregated from men and assigned inferior roles. Raising social consciousness to change these attitudes takes a very long time. Meanwhile the exploitation of women and children continues.
Last week I received a letter from a woman who was sold by her husband for 1,500 rupees (about $30) for his drinking expenses, wrote a priest from Kerala last November. As a result she became pregnant, he continued. The same day of her delivery she killed the child and poisoned herself. After the 13th day, she became conscious and was accused of murder and punished. After five years of imprisonment she returned home. She and her two surviving children were rejected and have nowhere to go.
This is just one example of the transformation of the female from victim to criminal in India.
In 1985 three Syro-Malabar seminarians from St. Thomas Seminary in Vadavathoor, Kerala (an institution supported by our Association), began to visit all the Kerala prisons. They provided books and entertainment and gave spiritual counsel; later they produced a magazine containing works contributed by the prisoners.
Established as a regular ministry of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference in 1990, the Jesus Fraternity, as it is called, is now constructing a renewal and vocation center for released female prisoners in the capital city of Trivandrum. Presently this center, supported by a generous grant from Catholic Near East Welfare Association, houses 10 women, all of whom have no place to go, and will provide job training, psychological and spiritual counseling and rehabilitation. When completed the center will house up to 60 persons.
Some of these women were imprisoned for prostitution, petty theft and the like. Others were raped and were imprisoned for murdering the child that resulted. Familial rape is not uncommon.
At St. Christinas Home near Trichur, the majority of the children were born at the home their mothers were thrown out of their homes when the families found out they were pregnant. Of the 62 children enrolled in our Child in Need Sponsorship Program at St. Christinas Home, 58 have sponsors.
After Msgr. Stern, Sister Kate, Sister Christian and I visited St. Christinas Home for unmarried mothers and their children in 1991. reminisces Mrs. Sanghvi, an American of Indian ancestry, none of us could eat dinner. There were so many stories of women who were sexually abused by their families, impregnated and then thrown out; for example, one woman, paralyzed from the waist down, was raped by a family member.
Bishop Joseph Kundukulam, the 75-year-old Syro-Malabar bishop of Trichur, is responsible for the creation of many of these programs for marginalized women. In Pullazhy, near Trichur, the bishop has established two homes one for aged and poor women, and the second for mentally handicapped women. Staffed by the Nirmala Dasi (the Pure Servants of God) sisters, a religious order founded by the bishop, these women first began their apostolate with the mentally handicapped by visiting local public hospitals. There the government temporarily housed the mentally and physically handicapped, many of whom were found in the streets. After the sisters secured the release of the handicapped women, they were housed in the home for the aged. Because of the special nature of the individuals and the constant care that is necessary, a separate home for the handicapped was proposed by the bishop. Through our benefactors, the Association has provided the funds to construct such a home and to repair the older structure that houses the home for the aged.
These are modest efforts to mend the lives of a few broken women, says the soft-spoken Mrs. Sanghvi. India is a vast country, with substantial problems. We are always looking for projects and programs that will contribute to the lives of all Indians, especially the exploited and the weak.
Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.