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Keep our 37 Million Diyas burning!

Sept. 2, 2013

Mary’s birthday and Girl Child Day are missing in our official Ordo this year, since it has coincided with the 23 parish in Mumbai will remember Mary. And with the rape of a 22 year old, while on a job, in broad daylight, right here in our city, Girl Child Day can no longer afford to be forgotten! The struggles of girls and women are now the concern of all right-thinking people in India. After all can we guarantee that it won’t be your sister, your daughter or your neighbour next?

A few months ago, our church came together, to express our anguish, at the shocking Delhi rape. The 37 Million Diyas campaign was born out of this concern for the safety of women and the degradation of our society. How have things changed since? Well for one thing every Christian in Mumbai knows now that there are 37 million ‘missing’ women as per the 2011 census. More importantly, this was not just a one-off event but a coming together of minds to look at long-term strategies for change. And change has begun.

Gender Sensitisation is now here in all ABE schools. Looking for ways to address the issue, the role of schools and teachers was seen to be primary. Hence the decision to introduce gender sensitisation in all Archdiocesan Board of Education (ABE) schools. Yet there was very little material available for use in schools that talked about relevant issues in an interesting and safe manner. Sr Noella de Souza mcj. and her team from Avehi Abacus worked from February through June to create a graded Gender kit.

Saath Saath - Living together in harmony, as the kit is lovingly titled, focuses on:
• Issues related to growing up and what this means to children - both girls and boys.
• The way in which gender identities are constructed - the influence of family, peers, school, media and culture on our attitudes towards men and women.
• Discrimination based on gender – how this plays a crucial role in society either openly or covertly.
• Stereotyping resulting in gender inequality and violence.
• How education, economic independence, women’s movements, the efforts of ordinary people and Constitutional provisions have changed women’s perceptions about themselves and the resulting changes in society.
• What we can do in our everyday lives to move towards gender parity and a society that values and respects all members.
• How the issue of gender parity and justice can be introduced and strengthened in our classrooms and schools.

The kit, meant for girls and boys between the ages of 11 to 16, comprises a manual for teachers, containing session plans, a CD containing all visual aids required for conducting sessions and a file of children’s material containing worksheets, factsheets and handouts. 

Orientation workshops have been organized by the Avehi-Abacus Project in collaboration with the ABE to familiarize teachers with Saath Saath which will be used in about 130 schools this academic year. Vital in these orientation workshops is the sensitisation of teachers who will be carrying this material to their classrooms. They are the prime agents in this change of mindset. The team aims to draw attention to the ways in which they have imbibed their own values, give them the confidence to deal with such delicate issues in their classrooms, motivate them to use the kit effectively and help by suggesting strategies to those who continue to be hesitant. Bishop Dominic Savio Fernandes and Fr George Athaide played a key role in giving the green signal to this project and the first Orientation workshops for the trainers have already begun this week in Thane, Mahim and Bandra.

Channeling Women Power! In our effort at breaking gender stereotypes, Women Cell members in different parishes approach schools with two programs Real Woman of Substance & High on Life. Designed for young girls and boys in Classes 8 & 9, they attempt to change deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes. In the process our women feel a sense of satisfaction as they better their own communication skills, interacting with principals, teachers and students. What’s more, a student in each class is awarded a much appreciated Values For Life Certificate on Violence-free Families Day (in November).

The Archdiocesan Women’s Commission makes an on-going effort to encourage women to discover their own self-worth - not blindly copying men but tapping their unique feminine strength. Our annual Women’s Leadership Training Program in collaboration with the Sophia Centre for Women’s Studies is currently on at Kurla. Over 6 weekends, 42 women this year have been given a chance to acquire basic Counselling skills, fundamentals of Women’s Law, Stress Management, Public Speaking techniques, insights into Women’s Studies, the Gender Policy of the church, Women’s Empowerment and Leadership and Jesus’ Vision for Women. Besides giving women exposure to prestigious Sophia College Lecturers and Certification, it’s a chance to bond together woman to woman and draw strength from each other.

Networking - All thinking people need to engage with each other. The process of Networking within the church has already begun. Almost every Commission and church body has taken the process forward, be it the Family Commission or the Youth Commission be it through Counselling workshops at the college level, or through changes in the Marriage Preparation course. The Justice & Peace Commission with the Institute for Community Organization Research was actively involved in the creation of the 37 Million Diyas campaign, and spearheaded legal participation by sending suggestions to the Justice Verma Committee. Their booklet regarding offenses against women - detailing all punishable laws in the Indian Penal Code - has been much in demand. The Centre for Social Action (CSA ) has consistently been engaged in capacity building of grass roots workers across Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan and Raigad and many of these women are empowering others in their jobs as part of CCOs in various parishes. The work of the CSA with the marginalized and unorganized sector is critical to both church and society.

So what’s next? Sadly, rapes continue to happen, and with increasing frequency. The victims of rape must carry their memories with them for the rest of their lives. They must not also carry the burden of silence and shame. So what do we do? 

Let’s talk. To our household help, to the driver, to our office colleagues, to each other! Let’s not blame our girls, by finding fault with how they dress, by restricting their freedom? On the other hand shouting for the death penalty and chemical castration is hardly an answer. We need to see that the level of our debate stays practical and constructive.

Let us meet. Let’s meet and talk in SCC clusters, in the Ladies Sodality, in Hope and Life meetings, in Senior Citizen get-togethers, in a school classroom or even at an office lunch table. 
Write to us at for a discussion paper on THE VIOLENCE OF RAPE.

Girl Child Day is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. It’s an opportunity for every parish to educate - through homilies, group forums, through special liturgies. In fact, all of September (Girl Child month) is a time to organize gender sensitization programs, woman empowerment sessions and self-defense workshops. Write to us at the above email address for a list of Resource persons who can be of help.

Sign up and make a difference. Fr Lancy Pinto of the Justice & Peace Commission together with Fr Mario Mendes of the Centre for Social Action are organizing a signature campaign during the 9 days of the Novena, in collaboration with several other groups. Put your name in and let our numbers talk to the Chief Minister about a new world order of justice and equality for all. 

In conclusion, let’s not underestimate our power to touch hearts and change lives. Let’s not be pessimistic about the future of our girls and of society, for in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

(Marcia D’Cunha is Secretary, Commission For Women, Archdiocese of Bombay.)

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