By Santosh Digal
Sister Cynthia Mathew, a member of the Congregation of Jesus, is working as NGO representative at United Nations, New York, since November 2017.
Earlier, she practiced as a lawyer in the High Court of Patna and District Court of Buxar in Bihar state. She also directed an NGO, Chirag (flame) Education Culture and Health Awareness Center of Buxar diocese. She has worked among the Dalit women, youth, and children. She was a member of Religious Forum for Justice and Peace, India; a member of Asian Movement of Women Religious against Human Trafficking (AMRAT)-a branch of Talita Kum, International Network of Consecrated Life Against Human Trafficking. She was also a member of Prison Ministry India, a voluntary organization working for the welfare of the prisoners.
She worked as a volunteer in the Central jail and Su-Jail of Buxar, Remand home and Juvenile home, Patna; and member of Buxar District Consumer Protection Council and District Vigilant Committee for inspecting Cable and Television Channel operators.
She spoke to Santosh Digal of Matters India on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
MATTERS INDIA: What is the significance of “International Women’s Day”?
SISTER CYNTHAI MATHEW: International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, call for change and to celebrate women’s’ triumph. Although great progress has been made, so much is still to be done to ensure that women are empowered, educated, safe, healthy and free to fully participate in equal societies.
When we celebrate the International Women’s Day we have to ensure that every woman and girl, especially in the rural areas, has access to basic rights to live a dignified life. Women and girls are victims of various forms of violence and it is on the increase in India. They are denied their human rights.
Sexual harassment, violence, and discrimination against women are capturing headlines and public discourse which show that women are coming out of the four walls to fight against the injustice done to them. The civil society is playing a vital role in the empowerment of women and we need partners to create a resilience and inclusive society where women are respected and valued. There is a movement for women’s rights, equality, and justice.
Therefore, International Women’s Day 2018 is an opportunity to transform this momentum into action, to empower women in all settings, rural and urban, and celebrate the success stories of women.
Do you think that gender disparity is growing more in India?
The cultural construct of Indian society which reinforces gender bias against men and women has led to the continuation of India’s strong preference for male children. Although the Constitution of India has granted men and women equal rights, gender disparity still remains. In the recent events in India, we have seen that girls and women (at least in urban areas) are finding their “voice” and raising it. Critical dialogues and discussions around gender are taking place and gender has become, at least for now, an important issue.
However, women and girls living in rural areas and in extreme poverty are victims of gender-based violation. There is a need for cultural change. The voice of the rural women and girls are to be heard. As I have worked among the rural Dalit women and girls I have witnessed the gender-based violence against women. Women and girls continue to suffer.
What do you stay about the status of women in India?
Though the status of today’s women in India has improved, the overall picture of women’s position in India is not satisfactory.
Women are subjected to all forms of violence. Though there are laws to deal with this violence, they are ineffective, and the situation of women remains the same.
There is a need for effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially goal number 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and number 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. India needs to focus on some key targets of the 2030 Agenda:
• By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes.
• By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.
• End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
• Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
• Eliminate all harmful practices, such as a child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
What are your views on women empowerment?
Women living in the urban area have some extent access to education, job, and are aware of their rights and able to come out of their walls to raise voice against violence.
However, both in urban and rural areas women still are under the control of domineering caste, culture and customs/practices which are oppressive of women. The change in the mindset and culture is very important to achieve the gender equality and empowerment of women.
What are the various issues of women that need urgent attention?
Women face all forms of violence from womb to tomb. Women are considered inferior to men and this attitude makes the men act accordingly in every situation of life -family, workplace, and society. Because of such type of inferiority, women face various issues and problems in their life.
Sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, a disparity in education, child marriages, dowry and bride burning, domestic violence, sexual harassment (at home and workplace) are very common in India.
Caste hierarchy is another hindrance which will not really give voice to Dalit women’s concerns. It is a gigantic challenge. Women and men together need to address these issues. There must be a cultural, and mindset change which can lead to gender equality and give respect to women.
The government and judiciary must make sure that the rights of women are protected under the existing laws and the women get justice. The gender studies must be introduced in the schools. Political participation of women is also very important.
What do you say about women accessing opportunities for development?
No nation can progress unless its women are given equal access to opportunities and adequate safety and security. Women play a major role in the economy of a nation, including housewives.
Many women would like to work more given the opportunities. Household surveys show that a large part of women who stay at home would prefer to work on a regular basis given the right conditions. Although most women in India work and contribute to the economy in one form or another and much of their work is not documented or accounted for in official statistics. While the participation in the workforce can change the economic condition, will this change the social condition? No, because of there are many other structures which need change.
What do you say about the democracy in India?
Human rights violation is on the rise in India. Orchestrated attacks on Dalits and minority communities, denial of the freedom of expression, depriving the land rights of Tribals (indigenous people) and Dalits, honor killings are very alarming.
There is a threat to our democracy. Democratic institutions are also being weakened, leading to the decline of democratic norms.
No society can be at peace and can prosper if one-fourth of the population feels neglected, deprived and unwanted. If we want a secular society, we have to stop identifying oneself by religion, caste, sex, or language and start thinking ourselves as equal citizens of one nation.