On path to equality

By Lizy Thomas

Bhopal, July 17, 2019: Egalitarianism says people are equal and deserve equal opportunities. Humans desire for a balanced prospect irrespective of our gender, caste, or region.

Often we are not aware about our rights or what we deserve. Some acquire these rights through the ‘might is right’ policy that allows the powerful to do what they wish to get what they want, even if their action is unjustified

Women, who form half of the humanity, are often at the receiving end, forcing them to live in invisibility. From time immemorial, the gift of our femininity has never been respected in almost all races in the world. Although society glorifies the stereotype femininity, it often considers women as weak and secondary citizens.

The consequence is seen in sex ratio, gender inequalities, injustice, high rates of sexual assault, lack of participation in decision making at home and outside, including in the Church.
Very often it makes me wonder how the God-given gifts can be made profane and unreasonable.

Women are seen not as women but instrument or tools to be exploited. Except little changes seen here and there, society, including the Church, wants women confined to home. Her rights are not recognized and her space is violated. There was a time when women were not allowed to exercise their franchise.

Despite having umpteen mechanisms to tackle the inequality in the Church and society, discrimination of women continues.

Women and men have the opportunity to make decisions that affect them. Political parties nominate both women and men for political office, but decisions are often made by men. I have seen at many places husbands or fathers-in-law deciding for women members of panchayat (village council) ward councils, municipalities.

Rural India had around 1.2 million female panchayat leaders as on April 30, 2018. However, cases of domestic abuse and violence and other atrocities on women are on the rise. The panchayat never addresses them because local governance institutions do not think that violence against women falls within the sphere of local governance. Therefore even if they are empowered women, violence against them continues and these leaders are unable to do anything for women who struggle.

Yet we see the women of today are no more subservient but try to assert. If we look at the history of women’s movement an empowering change is seen with the genesis of women’s rights. When women all over the world recognized that women are also human with the rights, they came forward to claim their rights.

The principle of equality is enshrined in the Indian Constitution but customs and traditions keep women under male domination. More and more legislations are amended to uphold the dignity of women and girls, yet the rate of violence remains the same with little change.

To name a few; Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005), Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act (1986), National Commission for Women Act (1990), Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (2013). All these legislations ensure safety of women but we know the reality is far from what is guaranteed in these Acts.

In the Ecclesial world, Vatican II revolutionized many practices regarding right and equality of all -Gaudium et Spes. It is affirmed in our Sacred Scripture “In the image of God; male and female were created” (Genesis 1:27).

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India released ‘The Gender Policy of the Catholic Church of India’ in 2010. To know the impact of the policy, a national survey was initiated by ‘Streevani’ on the role of women in the Church in the light of Gender Policy document in 2013.

It was found that only 16 percent of the respondents are familiar with “The Gender Policy of the Catholic Church of India.” Yet another finding of the study revealed that the Church appears to be better at charitable remedial support services than confronting fundamental gender and justice related issues.

If the policy is not made known to the entire hierarchy of the church, this guiding principle will remain only as a document. Then how can we expect a change with regard to equality of all in the entire structure of the Church?

In the Church, apart from family, the smallest unit is parish council where nuns and lay women representatives seldom offer their views on anything. It is either they are not prepared to speak or they lack confidence. Pope Francis, while addressing as assembly of women at Italy Women’ Centre Rome on January 28, 2014, said, “I strongly wish that opportunities and responsibilities may open themselves up further to the presence and participation of women both in the church and society and the professional sphere including a greater role in decision making.”

The women religious have to struggle for their rightful place and often assert and affirm when they need something. We are called to practice the values and principles in the Sermon on the Mount through contemplation, reading of the Gospel and daily evaluation.

On February 4 this year, Pope Francis and Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar signed a document by PCID (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue) a dicastery of the Roman Curia. Secretary Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot; the message was stressed on by Muslims and Christians to promote the dignity and equal rights of women and girls. In the document, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam called for denouement to the inhuman and vulgar practices that denigrate the dignity of women.

It was very heartening to know for the first time the International Union of Superiors General released on November 23, 2018, released the statements saying that, in case if any sister faces abuse, she is ought to report to the concerned persons and UISG pledged its support to the victims. Earlier, even responsible persons harassed the victims when sisters faced abuse.

Sr. Esther Fangman, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica said, “Individual sisters have to risk telling the truth if it is happening to them, others around them have to listen and believe them and not discount it as making it up. In many cases, I have witnessed that instead of verifying the issue with the accused and the victim, the accused is given a safe place, protected well and the victim has go from place to place for justice.”

We are called to reaffirm the equality of all persons created in the image and likeness of God. Everyone is entitled to live a life free of discrimination, violence and abuse. Let us utilize with courage the mechanisms provided by the Church and the State to bring about systemic change, thereby the reign of God prevails.

(Sr Lizy Thomas is a Holy Spirit nun working as a social activist in Bhopal)

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