‘Fight for gender justice is an ongoing process’

The Legislature and the Judiciary have failed to provide respect to women in society

By Santosh Digal

The Council of Catholic Women of India (CCWI) is one the premier women’s organization in the Catholic Church in India. Established in 1964, it has undertaken manifold empowerment programs for women. It advocates gender justice in society and the Church.

Juliet Ramamurthy is the current president of CCWI. Santosh Digal of Matters India talks to find it more about CCWI and its relevance in today’s context.

Matters India: Please tell us briefly about CCWI.

Juliet Ramamurthy: The CCWI is a registered body under the Societies Registration Act. It was inaugurated in 1964 at the time of the Eucharistic Congress held in Bombay with representatives from 15 dioceses. Now, it has emerged as a strong body of women and has been established in many dioceses of India. We have now 38 active units in India.

The CCWI is recognized by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI). It is affiliated to the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO).

We work along with the CBCI Women’s Commission in many dioceses. We also interact with women’s groups of other Christian denominations. The association plays a critical role in helping to address societal problems, especially problems of women and children. Our Catholic values, teachings, and traditions provide the foundation for the work CCWI does.

The CCWI had humble beginnings when the seeds of a national organization were sown by Countess Christine de Hemptinne of Belgium who addressed the Catholic women of Bangalore on behalf of the WUCWO. Encouraged by Archbishop Thomas Pothacamury, the then Archbishop of Bangalore, a woman forum was formed in 1956. This along with a similar association in Mangalore became nucleus for the formation of the CCWI.

In 1964 Eucharistic Congress in Bombay (now Mumbai) provided the occasion for initiating the CCWI. This meeting was blessed by Archbishop Eugene D’Souza, then in charge of the Laity Commission of the CBCI. He appointed Jesuit Father [Agostino] Agnoletto, [a professor of Mangalore’s St Joseph Seminary,] as the ecclesiastical advisor.

What are the objectives?

The CCWI co-ordinates the activities of women in India, in civic, psychological, emotional, physical, social, cultural, educational, health, economic, religious and spiritual fields and thus to play a more effective role in the life of the Church and country.

It serves as a medium through which women of India could speak and act as a body on all matters of public interest and specific matters affecting the life and ideals of women, irrespective of caste, creed, and community.

We coordinate between different Catholic organizations of women existing in dioceses and different regions.

The CCWI helps outline common policies and joint programs to be undertaken by different organizations either jointly or singly at a local, regional, national or global level and promote the establishment of local/diocesan councils under the guidance of the local bishops.

We establish contact and relations with other national groups in the country, with a view to enlist interest in and help in the solution of common moral, educational and socio-economic problems.

We foster relations with organizations in other countries whether national or international, with a view to co-operate in problems common to women throughout the world and to be in contact with the CBCI for all matters affecting the Church and the organization.

What are some recent activities?

We have many programs such as fostering functional literacy, education and social awareness generation, augmenting participation of women in local governance, encouraging women’s income generation (embroidery, sewing, knitting, candle-making, and mushroom cultivation) and economic capacity building, upholding non-violence and social empowerment, improving family health and nutrition, providing supportive health care for women through awareness camps, promoting healthy living and nutrition through nutrition demonstration camps.

We have short stay homes for women in distress. We join prison ministry, protests against justice, provide scholarships for girls, conduct computer training classes for poor women and girls, awareness program on HIV/AIDS, trafficking and crimes against women, child labor and other social issues. We also provide meals to the old and needy, visit hospitals, conduct spiritual retreats during Lent, encourage Bible reading and pray at homes of the sick and bereaved.

How does your organization make a difference for women and society?

The CCWI plays a critical role in helping to address societal problems, especially problems of women and children. Our Catholic values, teachings, and traditions help us empower women and help them become independent.

What has been your experience as its president?

I have had the privilege to meet wonderful people of all the units of the CCWI. Over the last couple of years, I have seen my growth as a leader. I am grateful for the opportunities CCWI has offered me and through my involvement with the members and their priceless work to fulfill our mission. I have traveled to many of our units, including the North East Regions and opened a unit in Nagaland. I have also tried to revive dormant units.

Has gender justice gained real momentum in Indian psyche and societal system?

In spite of having so many enactments and laws dealing with women and judgments of the Supreme Court protecting women and the downtrodden, the condition of women has not improved and they still face all types of atrocities.

The Legislature and the Judiciary have failed to provide respect to women in society. Human Rights Watch says changes in India will not happen until these laws are strictly implemented, support services are made available, and barriers to victims’ access to justice and healthcare are reduced. Fight for gender justice should be in full force.

In recent years, cases of rape and other forms of violence against women have increased. How can this be addressed effectively? What is the way forward?

Despite India’s anti-rape laws, sexual assault is a major problem. An insensitive, inefficient, corrupt and unaccountable judicial system and law enforcement machinery fails to deter various forms of crimes against women. The battle for empowering women rages on. Jawaharlal Nehru said, “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women.”

To truly understand and address violence against women, there needs to be a sea-change in the mindset of the people in the country. Men should wake up to a world of equality and equity. It is better that happens earlier rather than later, for our own good.

Sexual assault is the result of lack of awareness of the existing laws. In many places, many women are not aware of the existing laws. Those laws are insufficient, conflicting, and have no effect in practice. Women report acts of violence first to the police. Therefore, police attitudes are crucial in facilitating a sense of safety and comfort for women victims. When police officers are hostile to the victims, these women get no justice.

Measures to address violence against women range from access to legal aid to the provision of shelters and hotlines for victims. Despite advances in legislation and policies, the lack of implementation of the measures prevents significant progress in eradicating violence against women. The failure to apply existing laws and procedures is often due to the persistent gender stereotyping.

Stringent laws to punish the perpetrators of sexual crimes immediately should be put in place. Only then will fear be instilled in people.

It is reported that many Indians, including women, do not consider sexual violence as a serious problem. Your comments.

Sadly, some people think women are simultaneously victims as well as perpetrators of rapes they endure. Men will be men, the argument goes, which apparently means that men will be rapists.

How can CCWI pitch in to ease the phenomenon?

We believe that positive social change has a direct effect on the lives of women and that change is possible only through an equal and spontaneous participation of Women.

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