(Vatican Radio) Bringing the voices of Catholic women leaders from around the world to the heart of the Vatican is the goal of an event taking place on Wednesday to mark international women’s day.
The annual ‘Voices of Faith’ event is jointly organised this year by the Fidel Gotz Foundation and by Jesuit Refugee Services, focusing on women working for justice and peacemaking in countries across the globe.
Flavia Agnes is one of those who has been on the front line of this struggle in her native India. She’s a lawyer and co-founder of the Majlis Legal Centre in Mumbai for marginalized women and children. A survivor of domestic violence herself, Flavia has campaigned tirelessly to bring women’s rights to the forefront of her country’s legal system.
She told Philippa Hitchen about the work of her Centre, saying that while women to continue to suffer from the invisible scourges of domestic and sexual violence, her country has seen much progress for women at the political and economic level…
Flavia say the Centre was started 25 years ago, with the main aim of giving access to justice for women. She says India has many laws protecting women’s rights, but “accessing those laws is very difficult, many women don’t know how to find a lawyer, which can be very expensive, and whole the legal process can be very exploitative”. Much of this is beyond the reach of vulnerable and marginalized women, she says, “so we aimed to improve this access, especially in the cases of those who are victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Personal experience of domestic violence
Flavia Agnes explains that this work grew out of her own experience of domestic violence, at the hands of her husband. She explains how, aged 20, she had an arranged marriage with a man who, very quickly, began to beat her.
The violence continued for 13 years and, despite her attempts to get help, she says she was amazed at her community’s attitude towards domestic violence, even the attitudes of those within the Church. “Everyone said ‘this is your destiny, you’re supposed to adjust, this is what the church teaches,” she says.
“But I felt that the violence was so severe and so humiliating, this cannot really be what our religion is teaching,” Flavia says. She adds that “the violence was very degrading, not just to me, but I thought that this is not the environment in which to bring up children. What sort of message does this send to them?”
Eventually, Flavia managed to escape from her husband, taking her two daughters with her, though she wasn’t able to bring her son as well. She soon joined the women’s movement, which was in its early stages in Mumbai. “Even in that group, nobody knew about domestic violence, that it happens in ordinary middle class homes,” she says. “Today there is much better realisation of what happens.”
Progress in women's rights
Despite her experience, Flavia is adamant that the situation for Indian women has improved a lot, thanks to the efforts of women like her who have worked with both the Church and the State. In 2005 the government passed a law which specifically forbids domestic violence and forbids the husband to leave his wife homeless by throwing her out of his house.
Progress in the workplace has also been good, she says, with women taking roles in education, economics and politics, though not to the high levels that some had hoped. There is still much work to be done though, in the rural communities, she says.
“Accessing the law is still very difficult, especially for the working classes, the litigation process is still very challenging in the courts. The law promises many things but they aren’t delivered on the ground. So the work of my organisation is twofold, firstly to provide the access to the law for women and secondly to look at the causes of the problems, why it isn’t working and bring it to the notice of the state policy level.”
Changing a culture of complicity
A major key to success, Flavia says, will be changing attitudes in her part of the world . “The whole south Asian culture is profoundly anti-women,” she says. “The culture of abuse is part of everyday life” and the scale of it is only coming out now that there is mandatory reporting.
Speaking of the Voices of Faith event, Flavia says: “The waters must be stirred or else there is a whole passive complacency in the Church. It is necessary to bring in changes and awareness to local issues, so that the Church can be relevant.”
“The Church needs to be much more vocal to speak for justice, speaking much more for the people, for the marginalised, for the women. Our Church needs to support our work much more strongly and much more vocally.”