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EMPOWERMENT OF WOMEN IN THE CHURCH AND SOCIETY

마리올라

 

Sr Mariola B.S.(mariolabs@gmail.com)

Status of women in our society

God created man and woman alike, in his own image. But discrimination of women has become naturally accepted phenomena almost all over the globe. The status of women in Asia is all the more pathetic.

  • 70% of indigenous people live in Asia
  • 161 countries around the world are affected by human trafficking. 127 countries of origin, 98 transit countries, and 137 destination countries.
  • Of the 1.3 billion people who live in absolute poverty around the globe, 70 percent are women. For these women, poverty doesn’t just mean scarcity and want. It means rights denied, opportunities curtailed and voices silenced.
  • Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, according to the United Nations Millennium Campaign to halve world poverty by the year 2015.
  • Women earn only 10 percent of the world’s income.
  • Women own less than 1 percent of the world’s property.
  • Women make up two-thirds of the estimated 876 million adults worldwide who cannot read or write; and girls make up 60 percent of the 77 million children not attending primary school.
  • Many migrants are vulnerable and become victims of trafficking.
  • 150,000 women from South Asian countries are trafficked annually. In South Asia, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are the key centres of human Trafficking
  • 225,000 women from South East Asia are victims of trafficking annually.
  • Indigenous people constitute about 5% of world population, but they are 15% of world’s poor. 300 to 370 million people belong to indigenous people
  • 6-year-old boy polishes shoes at a makeshift shop in Gauhati, India. Rights activists say the number of child workers in India is as high as 60 million, with one estimate saying that 20 percent of India’s economy is dependent on children under 14. Many of them work in labor-intensive jobs such as carpet-weaving or more dangerous industries like glass making

“Women’s’ poverty is directly related to the absence of economic opportunities and autonomy, lack of access to economic resources, including credit, land ownership and inheritance, lack of access to education and support services and their minimal participation in the decision-making process. Poverty can also force women into situations in which they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation.” Beijing Platform for Action, Paragraph 51

An Analysis of the Causes –

The culture of domination, marginalization and exclusion which embodies ideas, beliefs, values, traditions, rules, norms, perspectives (ideologies) that prefer males/sons has been styled the culture of patriarchy. Through dominating social structures men own, control and manage financial, intellectual and ideological resources as well as the labor, fertility and sexuality of women, and thus perpetuate gender discrimination. Such a culture produces stereotyped notions of how a woman or man should behave (in words and actions), whereby they themselves become transmitters of the above value system. Consequently women also become both victims and victimizers.

The process of globalization which is market-centered and profit-driven, leads to further exploitation of women as cheap labour resulting in the increasing pauperization of women.

Fundamentalism and communalism reinforce the subjugation of women to men, suppress women’s movements by dividing women along religious lines and intensify violence against women.

 Myths at the Root of Violence to Women

The world has indeed suffered greatly because large sections of women in the world have been undermined and ill-treated.  They have been looked at with eyes of lust, greed and dominance.  They have been turned into commodities that translate into profit and satiation of lust.  Some cultures, in order to “protect” their women, go to the other extreme of controlling and curtailing their freedom to the extent of deforming, and even destroying them, as is being currently done in Afghanistan.  Women have to be liberated from both these extremes and treated as equal and responsible human beings.  There is a need for a lot of changes to be made in society’s attitudes, in cultural and religious traditions, that have been responsible in keeping these extreme views of women in place.  The extreme controls exercised over women from early childhood robs them of their self-confidence, and makes them believe that they are weak and necessarily dependent on a man.  Many women have suffered grievously because of these false beliefs.  They are blindly driven into marriage, cheated of their property and possessions by greedy male relatives, or treated as slaves in the household where they reside, because they feel they have to be protected by a male relative when single or widowed.  These women are often sexually harassed and abused by the so-called “male protector.”

Many women suffer violence in their married life.  This violence has been mental, emotional, and even physical.  This is often linked to misconceptions about the marriage relationship, or about the role of the wife in marriage, or just about the wrong idea of a woman as someone weaker and the right of man to get sexual pleasure from woman.

Situation of Women in the Church and Society

The socio-cultural situation of women should not be understood in the same way among all social classes and ethnic groups especially among the marginalised and the oppressed. It has its lights and its shadows. Though we have examples of empowered women in leadership positions and role-models like Blessed Mother Theresa and Saint Alphonsa, nevertheless the reality of women of all sections reveals instances of domestic and societal violence on young girls and women. Depending on the regions, female feticide, infanticide, rape, molestation, kidnapping, abduction, battering, dowry deaths, murdering, trafficking for sex and slavery exist even today.

Women of the marginalized groups such as dalits, tribals, indigenous people, migrants, victims of HIV AIDS, backward castes and minorities suffer much due to poverty, ill-health, lack of access to literacy and appropriate knowledge and lack of hygiene and potable water. In addition, they are being displaced from their lands and livelihoods. They suffer systemic and structural violence that enslave them and dehumanize them economically, socio-politically and religio-culturally.

Gender discrimination has negative effects on boys and men as well. It damages their psyche and increases the incidence of morbidity and crime among them. Relations of distrust, conflict, competition and many forms of subtle abuse emerge instead of those rooted in values of caring, sharing, compassion, mutual respect, collaboration and partnership. Such discrimination thus has negative consequences on human relations.

It is noticed that the structures which facilitate collaborative partnership between women and men as well as clergy and laity needs improvement. In 1992, the CBCI General Assembly stated, “with a sense of sorrow we must admit that the women feel discriminated against, even in the Church”. In the decision-making and the consultative structures like the Parish Pastoral Council, Diocesan Pastoral Council, Diocesan Finance Committee which are canonically advocated structures in the Church, the presence of women is inadequate.

In spite of the great contribution of lay women in spheres of education, health care, etc., their potentials are yet to be sufficiently tapped in the administrative and executive roles, as well as theological, liturgical, pastoral and missionary apostolates of the Church.

Signs of Hope –

In the midst of this distressing situation there are signs of hope. The Church has been spearheading several initiatives to bring about positive changes in the life situation of women and girls. From the time of the early Christian missionaries who placed emphasis on the education of both girls and boys, through its multiple interventions in the fields of welfare, education, health and the empowerment process to organize women, the Catholic Church has played a prominent role to improve the status of women.

Besides the Church and ecumenical bodies, government and non-governmental organizations, trade unions and social movements have played a significant role in facilitating change. Through its policies, for example, the National Policy on the Empowerment of Women, and legislative measures, the Government has contributed to the cause of women. By signing international declarations and conventions such as Human Rights, Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Violence against Women, the Government of India has taken a stand in favour of gender justice.

As a result, many women leaders both lay and religious are emerging in the public sphere such as local governance and political leadership. The process of generation of counter-cultural literature and media material, and the revival of subjugated memories of resistance by women against oppression and exploitation are influencing change in mindsets of people to a greater or lesser extent across space and culture. The promotion of appropriate ecclesiastical ministries among women in the Church is another sign of their participation in the mission of the Church.

The Vision of Christ –

Situating the teachings and actions of Christ in the context of Palestinian Judaism, we see how the evangelists not only highlight Jesus’ concern for women, but also his radical re-defining of their place and role in their society. In a culture where women were seen only in relation to men, Christ not only liberated them from their oppressive traditions but upheld their dignity e.g. the Samaritan woman (Jn.4:7-42) and Mary and Martha (Jn.11:20-40 ). He used the life-experiences of women as a paradigm of God’s love and Christian discipleship for all: woman and lost coin, woman and the dough and woman at birth pangs. Even at his death and burial, women were among those who bore testimony. Jesus entrusted to the women that they announce the Good News of Resurrection to his disciples.

St. Paul reiterates the equality of men and women (Gal.3:28) and continues to refer to many exemplary women. The early Christian Community was sustained by the deep faith of women who shared in the apostolic ministry e.g. Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe, etc.

In her teaching, the Church continues to uphold the dignity of women, uniqueness of motherhood (Letter to Women, 2), and the complementarity and reciprocity between men and women. To this day, the Church continues to witness the heroic character of women in their testimony to their faith even at the moment of persecution as in the cases of Sr. Rani Maria in Madhya Pradesh, Mrs. Graham Steins in Orissa, as well as the women and men of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chattisgarh and Orissa.

Mission of the Church in Asia

Reading the signs of the times, Pope John Paul II addressed “The Letter to Women” on the occasion of the 4th World Conference of Women in Beijing, 1995.  This was a courageous gesture of our Supreme Pontiff towards women.  He addressed the letter to each woman throughout the world as a sign of solidarity and gratitude.  He referred to the letter as a dialogue which begins with a word of thanks, and later goes on to apologize for the various injustices done to women down the ages through the history of the Church.  He stated “May this regret be transformed on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision.”   Women in the Church in Asia eagerly await this commitment to the “Gospel vision” and a continuation of the “dialogue” begun by the Holy Father to filter down to the level of the diocese and parish.

The 4th Plenary Assembly of FABC in Tokyo in 1986 addressed the issue of women and acknowledged:  It is therefore, not just a human necessity but a Gospel imperative that the feminine half of the world’s population be recognized and their dignity restored, and that they be allowed to play their rightful role in the world and in the Church.

In 1992, the concerns of women were taken up again at the Plenary Assembly of the CBCI in Pune India and consequently a Women’s Desk was instituted with the appointment of the first Woman Secretary to the Office of the CBCI. In 1996, the Women’s Desk was raised to the status of a Commission.

The formation of the Women’s Desk in the Office of Laity of the FABC and the holding of BILA I in 1995, and BILA II in 1998, brought together bishops and women from the countries of Asia to discuss and dialogue on the problems facing women.  The Bishops listened to the cries of pain of women in Asia, and responded with recommendations to the local churches in the final statements of both these meetings.  Responding to the recommendations, some bishops’ conferences set up a “Women’s Committee/Commission/Desk/Organization” to address the problems of women, as well as to empower them to take their rightful place in Church and society.  In many other countries women await this decision to strengthen their efforts to liberate women in Asia from the “tragic realities of Asian women that cry out for transformation.”

The Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem of Pope John Paul II, on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, on the occasion of the Marian Year, is a beautiful document that needs to be well read through by every bishop and pastor in the Church to understand Jesus’ attitude to women (Chapter V).  There is an urgent need to introduce these attitudes, and re-enforce them in Asian societies, and in the Church as well.

This document brings out beautifully Jesus’ openness to women.  Men in the Church will find in Jesus a good example of what it means to dialogue with women.  Jesus includes them in every area of ministry.  In his Church women expect the same.
When Jesus speaks to women about the things of God, they understand; there is a true resonance of mind and heart, a response of faith.  Jesus expresses appreciation and admiration for this distinctly “feminine” response.

The best example of dialogue is Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the Well (John 4:7-28).  Jesus begins by meeting her on a ground that is familiar and comfortable to her, the well.  Jesus starts the dialogue with a topic that is familiar to the woman — water, and leads her through a theological discourse on “life giving water.” He gently leads her to open up and examine her life in a non-judgemental way.  Jesus answers her questions about traditional and true worship.  Some interpret this part of the dialogue as the attempt of the woman to “change the topic” of her sinful living, that Jesus has begun.  But Jesus goes along with her in the true spirit of “listening,” and ultimately helps her to discover the truth.  She is transformed by her dialogue with Jesus, and becomes and ardent disciple, bringing many of her townspeople to Jesus.

Commitment to Action in Asia context

Taking into consideration all the recommendations arrived at during the process of discussion at the Plenary Assembly, it is necessary to mobilise our collective efforts towards elimination of the root causes of discrimination against women. Accordingly we commit ourselves as a body to evolve within a period of one year from now, a gender policy developed by each Regional Bishops’ Conference with time bound action plans for their region with monitoring mechanisms. Basing on these, the CBCI Gender Policy will emerge. The Women’s Commission of CBCI will give general guidance and norms for developing such policy, if required.

Women have to be empowered to take responsibility for shaping their own destinies, as well as that of the world.  The Church has to help women by initiating a dialogue with women.  The Church may also need to have the courage to make changes in laws and structures to make this dialogue a genuine reality.  This dialogue should be at different levels, at the level of faith, tradition, culture and life.  The essential differences between men and women produce life-experiences that are different.  Women see things differently, feel differently, and make decisions differently.  It has not helped humankind to discount women’s decisions as inconsequential or emotional.  Being rooted in life and the nurturing of life, women’s decisions are generally directed to the promotion and preservation of life.  Women are naturally endowed with life-enabling characteristics.  WOMEN ARE PRO-LIFE.

Women can contribute significantly to the promotion and growth of human life, human relations and spiritual values.  This has been adequately proved down the ages in woman’s role as mother, sister, wife and daughter.  But to keep these skills of women confined to the home is to limit the influence and scope of women to enhance life in wider and equally effective areas of political, economic, social, and religious life.

The Asian Church In Solidarity With Women

The recommendations of the consultation the First and Second Bishops’ Institutes on Women in the Church (BILA I and II), (cf. Appendix III below) are proposed for implementation, as a way for the Church in Asia to be truly in solidarity with women.

The social teachings of Pope John Paul II on women can be used to change attitudes, and to challenge the oppressive elements in cultures and social traditions that have caused women to suffer.  These documents have to be provided not only to women for their study, and to reflect upon, but also to men.  Catholic men have to join women in bringing about liberative changes in cultural and religious practices that are life-threatening to girl-children and women.
Unless the Church steps in to encourage the women’s movements in Asia, the liberation of women from evil practices like the dowry, female foeticide/infanticide, incest, molestation, rape and trafficking of women, etc., will remain a distant dream for them.  The Church can through its various institutions which serve people help to create an awareness of religious, cultural, political, and economic structures that oppress women in the home, at work, in society, and so work to promote the God-given dignity and equality of women.
Our educational institutions must be motivated to work for the empowerment of girls, by making them aware of their rights, and then how to assert themselves when their rights are trampled upon.

At the same time, we have to work towards creating a gender-sensitivity in boys, if we are genuinely interested in social transformation.  Girls have to be helped to realize their dignity as autonomous human beings, able to function as persons in their own right, and to grow to their full God-given potential.  They should be encouraged to take up political careers, working from a truly feminine perspective which is life-oriented and life-enabling.
Efforts have to be made to draw women into parish and diocesan pastoral councils, by arranging meetings times suitable to women, by providing creche facilities for women with young children, and community care for these children.  Similarly, child-care facilities should be provided or encouraged at the community level to help women take up theological studies, pastoral work, social work, or any other work, for which they have the talent and skill and could be fulfilling to them.

To strengthen families the Church has to think seriously in terms of a comprehensive pre-marriage preparation program, beginning in high school, with at least a week of intensive inputs immediately preceding marriage, to promote wife-husband relationships which are based on mutual respect, shared parenthood and equal partnership, particularly in decision-making, family finance and domestic work.

The present tensions experienced in marriages are due to the fact that women are aware of their rights, and feel the need to assert them, while the men are often stuck with the image of the male as the sole authority in the home.  These programs could be on-going through marriage.

The Church should be invited to enter into a genuine dialogue with women in order to understand the need to use gender-sensitive language.

Twelve point programme to empower women in the Church and Asian Society:

Impart skills for effective parenting through Family Education programmes and Marriage Preparation Courses, keeping in mind the need to overcome the cultural bias against the girl child and sexual stereotypes.

Encourage family-oriented movements like ‘Marriage Encounter’, ‘Teams of Our Lady’, and ‘Couples for Christ’ to promote the fundamental equality of husband and wife as both a gift and a right deriving from God, the Creator

Incorporate a gender perspective in all the Commissions of the Church and foster networking to further the goal of a gender-just Church and society,

Provide theological, biblical and canonical studies that promote gender justice and an ecclesiology of partnership;

v. Provide scholarships and part-time courses for women for theological, biblical and canonical studies.

Provide opportunities for theologically-trained women to contribute as pastoral workers, researchers, faith formators, professors in theologates and spiritual counsellors.

vii. Prepare audio- visual material as an effective tool for gender sensitisation.

viii. Offer at least 35% (moving towards an ideal of 50%) representation of women as office- bearers and members on parish and diocesan pastoral councils, and finance committees and in the ecclesial bodies at the local and national levels.

  1. Affirm the pastoral work of women –lay and religious- as catechists, lectors, and animators of Basic/Small Christian Communities, counsellors, liturgists and community workers through the recognition of these as ministries.
  2. Work towards a commitment for the uplift of the tribal, dalit and disadvantaged women, including their education and opportunities for employment in Church institutions.
  3. Take concerted efforts to address the needs of migrants and domestic workers, and keep fighting against the trafficking of women and children.

xii. Support women in their process of political leadership for Panchayat, Legislative Assembly and Parliament

Change is a necessary process of growth, and, therefore, our approach to changes in the gender equation should be positive.  Religious congregations should be encouraged to take up a mission to women who are victims of various kinds of violence.  The issue of violence in the family has to be seriously taken note of, and addressed in a concerted way, for prevention of, as well as for the handling, of casualties, if the Christian family is to fulfill its mission in society.

  1. Rights Based Approach to empower women in Asia:

Economic entitlements: Asian women by and large are made to be dependent on men all through their life even if they earn. Church based and other Faith based Organisations must focus on their economic entitlements.

 Social equality: The equality of man and woman should be taught from womb to tomb so that everyone knows and accepts the social equality of man and woman in day to day life.

Cultural Entitlements: Women are often depicted as objects rather than subjects. This is due to the interference of men in their cultural entitlements to have their holistic developments. Their rights to learn and contribute towards the welfare of the society must be respected, protected and fulfilled both by the governments and by the private sectors.

Entitlements to Civil and political leadership: women have by an large proved their commitment to honesty and sincerity when they are given the responsibility to take care of the governance. The civic and political leadership among women would certainly end corruption by and large in the society.

Conclusion

The Church, as the sacrament of Christ, has been entrusted with the mission of proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. This she has consistently done in the face of the concrete challenges with which she has been confronted. One such challenge has been the issue of the dignity and role of women in the Church and society. We conclude this Statement with our thoughts centred on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our mother; “therefore the fullness of grace was granted, with a view to the fact that she would become Theotokos, also signifies the fullness of the perfection of ‘what is characteristic of woman’, of ‘what is feminine’. Here we find ourselves, in a sense, at the culminating point, the archetype, of the personal dignity of women.” (MD 5).

Through the true spirit of reconciliation, all women hope that they will be recognized as equal partners in the mission and ministry of the Church.  Through the spirit of reconciliation, we hope that no woman will still feel devalued, not taken seriously, uncomfortable as a woman in the Catholic Church, which walks in the footsteps of Jesus, who showed us the Way, the Light and the Truth to true Human Liberation.

May Mary our model of discipleship, woman of courage, and woman of action, inspire and be with the Church of Asia in our journey towards fullness of life for all the peoples of Asia.

 

References

  1. Review of Mulieris Dignitatem, by Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala.
    2.”I Dare,” Kiran Bedi, a Biography by Parmesh Dangwal, published by UBSPD Ltd., New Delhi.
    3. “Mary, Model of Discipleship,” by Sr. Maria Anicia Co, RVM.  Paper presented at BILA II on Women.
    4. “GOD: Father or Mother”?, by Dr. John D’Mello, published in Neythri, vol. 34, No. 1, January c1999.
  1. CBCI General Body statement 2008

<VaticanⅡ, Ecological Crisis and Peace of Asia>, Seoul : WTI 2013