Interview with Sr. Justine G. Senapati

By Santosh Digal

Sister Justine G. Senapati, an Indian member of Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy congregation, is a social worker and human rights activist who has worked with the United Nations as Non-Governmental Organization representative. After a five-year stint with UN, she is soon to return to India. Santosh Digal of Matters India talked to her to know more your work and experiences. Excerpts:

Please introduce yourself

I am a religious nun for 20 years in the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy. I have served 15 years in India and five years in the United States of America with the Global Mission of St. Joseph at United Nations, New York.

In India, my initial engagements were catechetical ministry in the interior village of Andhra Pradesh, educator in slum school, Odisha, and mentor and formator for the young girls and the sisters, coordinator for justice and peace ministry for my province, Bhubaneswar and secretary to the Women Commission in the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, Odisha. I was directly involved with the victims of Kandhamal communal violence of 2007 and 2008. Kandhamal is my birth place as well.

What are you doing in the UN?

I see my role here as a connector which was very important and fundamental between the UN processes and the global family of Joseph. I tried to initiate some new processes with our existing structures (members and
missions of grassroots) in achieving the goal of the CSJ UN NGO.

As the representative of the global body of the Sisters of St. Joseph, I was consulted on policy and program matters. My role at UN activities included information dissemination, awareness raising, development education, policy advocacy, joint operational projects, and collaborating with UN agencies, programs and funds. Our work is undertaken in a formal and informal ways at local, regional, national and international levels, as well as at the UN itself.

This was a great opportunity for me to serve the global family of the Congregations of St. Joseph at United Nations Organizations (CSJ UN NGO) as a chief administrative officer and main NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) representative.

What is international advocacy for policy change?

Our NGO has been constantly participating and engaging through the important UN conferences and discussions related to the social, economical, cultural and environmental issues at New York and few times at Geneva. Through our lobbying and advocacy, we have able to make 15 important UN statements both written and oral namely on migration, women, boat people (huge death in Mediterranean), freedom of religion and belief, Dalit, minority and indigenous issues of India; a Letter on “Genocide” to the UN Secretary General, a joint letter to Pope Francis regarding the human rights to water and sanitation and another joint letter to the President of the United States of America on US travel ban.

Our members in India and Haiti have been engaged with the UN process through the collaborations of the national and international NGOs to submit the shadow reports of Haiti and India’s Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) during the Human Rights Councils in Geneva. We have co-organized four of the side events during the UN sessions on “Migration”, “Eradicating Poverty”, “Indigenous, Dalits and minority issues. As an Indian religious woman, I was able to share the grassroots experiences of my country and made an oral statement in Geneva during the Human Rights Council on Dalits and Indigenous issues.

Our NGO had partnered with UNICEF in Haiti with Nutritious and Feeding Projects with other Religious NGOs in 2015 and has partnered with US Women Group to distribute the Christmas Gift package to the Children. We continue to attend the sessions on Department of Public Information (DPI) and the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) which is a Ministerial Segment provides political leadership, guidance and recommendations to follow-up and to keep track of the progress of 2030 Agenda’s implementation on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We attend the General Assembly (GA) and the UN’s Emergency Conferences for Peace.

You also work with UN policies, NGOs and Civil Society groups. Please elaborate.

Collaboration with other few New York based Religious NGOs, we have co-organized three important Regional Conferences: one in Rome (Europe) on “Religious & Migration” in 2016 and the second one in Nairobi (Africa) on “Women and Migration” in 2017 and third one in Delhi (Asia) on “Migrant Workers” in 2018. Many delegates of the Congregations of St. Joseph from Europe, Africa and Asia had participated along with other religious women and men in great numbers in all conferences with the complex issues of the present context of the respective regions.

The conferences helped us to enhance our relationships with other Religious and International NGOs worldwide. We were able to collaborate with International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), International Organization for Migration and Development (IOM), Migration and Development (MADE).

The Conferences also created new net works initiatives with Delegations from the European Union, and Holy See, with Head of the Roman City, International Union of Superiors General, (UISG), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Kenyan government Department of Immigration Service, Kenyan Conference of Catholic Bishops, Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), a Kenyan-based organization working on awareness against human trafficking (HAART), Amnesty International, Pan African Network in Defense of Migrants’ Rights (PANiDMR).

For Asia we created net work with Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and archbishops of Delhi, Agra and Faridabad, Caritas India, CBCI Office for Labour, International Labour Organization (ILO) for Asia Pacific, India Centre for Migration (ICM), National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), National Solidarity Forum (NSF), Intergovernmental Organization of Partners in Population and Development (PPD), Bangladesh and with Senior Supreme Court & High Court Lawyers, Professors, Human Rights Activist, Refugees, Migrants and Victims themselves with local practitioners.

This provided a space for us men and women religious to share our experiences in the common responsibility towards today’s many migrants and refugees. We heard those with a deeper knowledge of the situation to connect our efforts for more effective and efficient responses which strengthened our response at the grassroots through networks and collaborations. The conferences enhanced our advocacy at the global policy processes of UN system and provided an opportunity for us the UN NGO representatives to tie with our constituencies at the grassroots.

What can people like you do to make a difference in Third World countries?

I do feel responsible to engage myself for policy change initiatives which affect the Third World countries. During this period, I gave my best in engaging myself and our members to work effectively through UN dynamics and processes to make the voices of the marginalized and those who deserve a better quality of life in the face of injustice and discrimination at various levels were addressed in a collaborative way. I worked through international advocacy so that the living conditions of thousands around world especially those who remain at the margins and furthest behind in the faces of poverty, hunger, illiteracy and ravages of war may improve.

Nearly 100 religious congregations (men and women) based in New York like me. We are known as Religious at UN to share and exchange our ideas and plans for greater collaborations on critical issues in Church and in the world. Each represent their organization either single or with coalition. I feel blessed among them. Our NGO shares the membership with different NGO Committees at New York, particularly on Social development, Financing for Development, Mining Working group, Indigenous Peoples Issues & on Freedom of Religion and Belief. We engaged particularly with the issues of Eradicating Poverty, Social Protection Floor, Migration/Refugees, Trafficking, Women, Girls, Children, War, Terrorism, Xenophobia, Mining, land grabbing, Ecology, Water, Sanitation, Land, Food Security and many other issues. We contributed effectively to the committees for the UN’s policy change initiatives; especially I was being an executive member for the NGO Committee on Migration, New York and being selected as one of the Civil Society delegates to participate for three important Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD) in Dhaka, Bangladesh (2016), Berlin, Germany (2017) & Global Compact for Migration (GCM) in Marrakesh, Morocco (2018).

What have you learnt from your stint at the UN?

These past years were very exhilarating and adventurous with new learning and discoveries for me. Being representative at the United Nations as NGO for the Global Family of JOSEPH was one of the richest and rarest experiences for my entire life. I strengthened the bond and relationships with Global Family of Joseph through personal visits to different continents such as Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America and Canada.

I witnessed the zeal of our sisters with limitless services to the most marginalized and poor by keeping the light of our Charism burning which is “Serving the Dear Neighbor”. It created a deep and personal bond with the CSJ members and so many different organizations and personals. I thank God for the deep rooted Charism of Joseph which binds us together as Global Family with our “Unity in Diversity”.

My associations with the United Nations and its objectives have opened up my mind with a broader perspectives and realities about the different ethnicity, culture, language and belief. Human Dignity and Respect for every person remains central to my understanding. The UN’s clarion call for “Leaving No One Behind” in implementing the Global Agenda of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, challenges me as a religious woman to accept and respect ALL because everyone matters in this world.

The concept of “Great Love and Communion” and “Loving God and Neighbor without distinction” was deeply understood by me after living the community life in New York with my American Sisters, where I felt the belongingness and ownership. The place and people I called my home, my sisters and my family. Therefore the true love is not just an abstract but it is to be felt with total acceptance and trust.

What are the problems and challenges you faced related to work?

It was quite challenging to understand multiple issues and concerns but I felt it was worth being here as an agent or a connector of CSJs to UN processes & to the issues of the world. I hear a lot of concerns, issues that women and marginalized groups face; yet we are not able to address it as the powerful politicians and officials who are supposed to alleviate their concerns are in fact exploiting them so I feel badly that we need to have network within the Congregations of St. Joseph as well as other congregations and civil society groups to address people’s concerns otherwise, we would waste our energy, times and potentialities.

We CSJs should have more research, database in the region and issues we are working with so that we could be more effective and our works could be more visible and inspiring to others. We are doing wonderful activities; but people do not know; nor able to inspire others.

Continuity of the works and after the works; I am not sure where my experiences would take me although I wish to continue with the UN Human Rights process where ever I may be; but there should be a system and mechanism to continue sharing our work experiences and get moving ahead.

Do you think UN is still relevant especially when some First World countries do not bother to abide by UN policies?

After engaging, discussing, and regular consultations at UN on various issues and concerns of the world, I wait for positive results but feel helpless and frustrated seeing some First World countries do not bother to the critical and pressing Global concerns of our planet such as on climate change, migration, and refugee issues. Originally it has been created as one planet and one human race. Wish that there should not be any unequal political, economical & social powers & boarder which divides the human beings and the planet. In past, two World Wars have ruined much of our planet and human lives due to few powerful & tyrant world leaders. Now the greed, selfishness and misuse of common wealth such as people, land, forest and ocean should not be use for one nation’s profit less it affects all. Wish that the blind pursue for power and unhealthy competitions, globalization and consumerism should stop and the leaders of our time should put their heads & hearts together to protect the planet and its people.

Did you experience gender disparity in UN undertakings?

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Unfortunately, at the current time, 1 in 5 women and girls between the ages of 15-49 have reported experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12-month period and 49 countries currently have no laws protecting women from domestic violence. While women have made important inroads into political office across the world, their representation in national parliaments at 23.7 per cent is still far from parity. Though gender parity at the United Nations is an urgent need, it needs to be operational and actualized.

This is the 73rd year of the creation of the United Nations Organizations and not even one in the history of UN there has been a female Secretary General. So needless to say even in the process, election and selections of the important positions of UN the gender disparity exists. UN is not separate from this world because the members belong to this planet where inequality and gender disparity continues. I wish that equal opportunity is given to women to take responsibility of the world’s biggest organization so that there should be a meaningful inclusion of women in decision-making process which can affect the productivity in bringing new perspectives and solutions to the critical issues of the world.

Was working with UN a bane or boon for you?

The selection of me as CSJ UN NGO by the Global CSJ Leaders was very inspiring to me personally, because I come from the remotest region and community to represent the most margins at UN. I am proud to be an Indian and be born in the poor region of Odisha which helps me to understand the critical issues that affects the vulnerable humanity of today. The values of CSJs standing for the poor and serving the dear neighbor makes me feel proud to be a member of such religious family and happy that I got this opportunity.

This job is quite fulfilling as I am able to have global pictures; from Africa, Asia to Europe and USA, Canada to Latin America to connect and to understand global issues, challenges and concerns that humanity understands. Joining hundreds of religious women and men at UN, have better pictures of the world as well as the religious groups engaged worldwide and had the opportunity to meet grass roots to world leaders of various concerns and met with people of all sorts and developed networks.

Today, I am indebted to God for choosing me among many and allowed me to have different experiences both negative and positive to become a person who God wanted me to be. This position is an important milestone to look forward to my life with hope and confidence.

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