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Empowering For Empowerment

Empowering For Empowerment

A good number of women -religious who are involved in social apostolate in India are working for the empowerment of women. One of the methods used for empowering women of the underprivileged groups is forming Self Help Groups (SHGs) . As a consultant to a few donor agencies and NGOs, I had the opportunity to interact with the women members of SHGs in different parts of India. I could observe that in comparison with the other women of the same community or village the women of SHGs have more self -confidence , courage, information, and readiness to work for common good. Many women of SHGs have developed their leadership skills and have contested for the local body elections and even won the same.

I could also observe that in many cases the nuns who are in charge of the women empowerment projects are less empowered than many women of the SHG s, whom they are expected to guide. Four indicators for measuring empowerment are : 1 ) better self -image 2) better self -confidence 3) better self -reliance and 4) better self - assertion. Many evaluation studies on SHGs have pointed out that women after joining dynamic SHGs, have become empowered through the process of improving their self-i mage, increasing self -confidence , becoming more self- reliant and asserting their basic rights of human dignity. It seems that this process is not taking place in many women -religious ; it may be due to the formation process and the life style they have adopted.

Only an empowered person can motivate others to become empowered. There could be a good number of empowered individuals within the women religious congregations in India. At the same time the misguided concept of spirituality, understanding of religious life, structure and practices within the Church are hindrances to the process of empowerment of women-religious . A n analysis of these elements can throw light on the ways and means for empowering women religious within the Indian Church.

We can see how an exaggerated sin -consciousness can create a very low self image in human beings. All religions, including Christianity, focus more on the sinfulness of human beings than on the Divine presence in every human being, due to reasons other than spirituality. The Bible unambiguously states that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God ; it also says , that something went wrong with the human beings and therefore they have a tendency to commit sin. But basically human beings are the sons and daughters of God and God dwells in every human being. Not being aware of this simple yet powerful truth is the cause for sin. Some misguided preachers arouse exaggerated sin-consciousness in human beings. Women, especially the women -religious , are victims of these ‘merchants of sin’.

A spirituality whose foundation is sin can't build a better human being. On the other hand, a spirituality founded on the conviction that the Divine is present within each person motivates him/her to do seemingly impossible things. Then that person will be able to say with St. Paul, “If God is with me who can be against me”. Once a person is conscious of the Divine presence within him/ her, she /he will be able to see the same Divine presence in other human beings. The result will be sensitivity and respect for all human beings irrespective of their status in the society. Hence the first and foremost step in the empowerment of women religious is refocusing on the God who is residing within us and by counting the blessings he has bestowed upon us and thanking him instead of keeping an account of the sins.

Mother Mary is often presented as a woman of obedience, humility, simplicity and silent suffering. She is also presented as a role model for women, particularly the religious women. Hence they are supposed to adhere to an unquestionable obedience to the authorities and are silent victims of injustice and humiliation. Under the guise of simplicity and modesty they are encouraged to use the habit which is considered by many Indians a vestige of foreign culture and allegiance to foreign powers. The Gospels present Mary as a daring and dashing woman. Her M agnificat is a revolutionary statement of the social situation to be created by the arrival of Jesus . When she came to know that Elizabeth was in need of her service s he hastened to be with her. W hen Jesus was crucified the disciples ran away out of fear , but Mother Ma r y along with other women stood firm at the foot of the cross. Seeing Mother Mary as a proactive, courageous and sensitive woman and taking inspiration from her is the second step needed. Mother Mary should be a source of inspiration to women- religious for enhancing their self -confidence , self-reliance and self -assertion .

Vocation to religious life is a vocation for discipleship of Jesus. Unfortunately, the formation process in most of the religious congregations, especially in women religious congregations, is making the members ' devotees ' of Jesus rather than ' disciples ' who are called to continue the mission of Jesus i.e. integral liberation. Hence a transition from a ' devotee of Jesus ' to a ' disciple of Jesus ' will bring about radical changes in the women religious. In order to continue the mission of Jesus, one has to imbibe the attitude, mindset and value system of Jesus through contemplation. Devotion generally leads to passivity and copying, but the fruits of contemplation are courage, creativity and compassion.  Simultaneously , a disciple of Jesus has to develop competence by enhancing her knowledge and skills through continuous learning. Hence the third step needed for empowerment of women religious is a transition from a ' devotee ' to a ' disciple ' of Jesus.

A disciple of Jesus is called upon to respond creatively to the challenges in the society. In a fast changing world the role of religious, as I perceive, is that of a leader, animator and facilitator. Religious, particularly women -religious , in India have been involved in providing services in the field of education, health, social welfare etc. Better welfare organisations have entered these fields and there is a stiff competition among the former and latter . In order to play the role of a leader, both men and women religious have to enter the civil society and take leadership roles. This requires both women and men religious to enhance their knowledge and communication skills. Each religious has to acquire expertise in a particular field in tune with the God -given talents to her so that she will be able to make a unique contribution. The practice of religious taking academic degrees through short cuts (privately appearing for exams) has to be discontinued. Regular study in college or an institution of higher learning provides a lot of time for reading, interacting with other students and participating in co -curricular activities.

There are changes that need to take place in the practices within the Church. As a part of women empowerment, the dioceses and the national and regional bishops’ conferences have to take a decision not to employ sisters for housekeeping , cooking, taking care of the book selling etc. in the bishops’ houses and other diocesan institutions. The religious congregations also have to resolve not to take up these roles in the future .T he commitments that are already taken are to be phased out within a period of three years. T he dioceses can hand over the total management of pastoral centres to religious congregations based on a contract. There is no need of keeping priest s as the director s and the sisters as workers. There could be many groups of nuns who can manage pastoral centres better than the priests.

Presently many sisters, who are working in the diocesan institutions, including the English medium schools, are not paid proper salary and they do not have the freedom to take decisions. For each and everything they have to get the permission from a priest who is the director. As a part of empowering the women religious, this practice has to be done away with. The women religious congregations collaborating with dioceses or men’s religious congregations should have a contract for each institution or project. The roles, responsibilities and rights, including the decision making powers of each sister working in diocesan institutions are to be given in an annexure to the contract. The decision making powers and responsibilities of principals of schools under the dioceses are to be specifically mentioned in the contract. The contract has to be legalized in a way that ensures its validity in a court of law. The salary of the nuns should be decided taking into account their qualification, experience and salary scale prevalent in the area.

In a few sexual harassment cases, priests who were directors of girls’ hostels were arrested and they were imprisoned for months. All these cases were later proved to be false. Against this backdrop, the hostels run by the dioceses have to be entrusted to the women congregations on the basis of a contract. The sisters should have full autonomy to manage the hostels on the basis of this contract, instead of keeping a priest as the director of a hostel for girls. 

It is very repugnant to observe that in some cases, the Holy Mass is abused to take revenge against a community of sisters. The nuns should have the courage to boycott the Mass offered by such unchristian priests. The Holy Mass, which the Catholic Church teaches us to be t he centre of Christian life, is sometimes misused by priests and bishops as an instrument to control the nuns. There are a good number of instances when a group of sisters were denied Holy Mass because they questioned or did not fall in line with the dictates of a parish priest or a bishop. This is a gross misuse of priesthood and the sisters should have the courage to withstand such pressure tactics as a part of their empowerment.

In many parishes the communities of nuns are forced to do the sacristy work, cleaning the church, washing the linen, decoration of the church etc. These tasks belong to the parish community. The nuns as well as the men religious communities within the parish territory shall join the parish community in performing such tasks. Compelling only the nuns to perform such tasks is nothing but exploitation. By meekly submitting to such unjust demands, the nuns are disempowering themselves.

Some dioceses have started perpetual adoration centres and the sisters’ communities have to take turns to be before the Blessed Sacrament. Under the vow of obedience sometimes it becomes a compulsion . In some cases nuns are outsourced to adore Jesus. Why can't the bishops and priests also take turns to be present at the adoration centres? Why is it that only the women religious are compelled to do so ? Aren't both under the vow of obedience? We of ten see this injustice at the retreat centres too where the nuns are assigned with unpaid menial jobs . This is exploitation under the guise of spirituality. The Major Superiors who compulsorily assign their members to the adoration and retreat centres at the request of priests and bishops are contributing to the disempowerment of their own sisters. 

As per the existing practice and norms, dioceses or bishops have the freedom to start congregations for women and many have started without giving much thought to the future implications. Time has come to put an end to such dominance . Before giving permission to start a religious congregation for women, the national CRI has to make a detailed study by appointing an expert committee, consisting of Catholic women of good standing. Only with the recommendation of the National CRI the dioceses or anyone can start congregations for women. This precaution is urgent and necessary to prevent the nuns being used as a cheap source of labour. 

The women -religious in India need empowerment if they are to lead a dignified life and become effective catalysts in the empowerment of underprivileged women. Academic education is not sufficient to make women-religious empowered. The formation of women- religious and the environment in which they work also play a key role in the process of empowerment. The individual woman-religious, the congregations and the ecclesiastical authorities have to undergo a radical transformation in their mindset and attitude. The present crisis in the Catholic Church in India calls for a radical revision of the role of women-religious in the Church. The religious, both men and women, are called to be prophets, the conscience of the society; but subservience is the number one enemy of becoming prophetic: to be courageous, creative and compassionate.


(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)