15 March 2012
Sister Leema Rose, one of four Nirmala Dasi Sisters working in Dharavi, a slum in the center of Mumbai, makes her evening rounds to visit the sick and those struggling to make ends meet. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Megan Knighton is a Major Gifts Officer for CNEWA.
When I was 21, I spent the summer working in India with a group of sisters and lay women. I had never traveled that far from home and I remember being petrified hovering over the Pacific Ocean on my 24-hour flight to Chennai. I was going to work for the Christian Council of Social Services, an ecumenical organization dedicated to eradicating poverty, improving healthcare and supporting workers’ and women’s rights. It has also partnered with CNEWA. Idealistic and young, I had big ideas about what people needed. I wanted to help implement various on-the-ground models for improving the lives and dignity of the poor, particularly women. But what I learned on that trip was far more than just practical and effective ways to deliver humanitarian care.
It’s amazing how much of my life as a middle-class, American woman is embedded in privilege. I can wake up every morning and take a warm shower, go to my kitchen and have a cup of tea and an English muffin, take the subway to my 9-to-5 job and sit in my cubicle reaching out to donors and feeling good about my contribution to the world. I have acollege degree, in fact a graduate degree. I have insurance and access to quality healthcare whenever I need it. I can facebook and tweet all day if I want to from my office computer, my Blackberry, or my laptop at home. I can go to sleep at night assured that my neighborhood is, for the most part, safe and protected. I am, generally speaking, a very blessed woman.
What I experienced in India was a little different. The word that best captures the spirit of Chennai is contrast. Modern art museums next to shanty towns. Mercedes driving next to ox-carts. Educated, female business owners walkingnext to poor prostitutes. One woman I worked with summed it up rather succinctly: “In America, women wear mini-skirts, they go out on the town, they have choices. But it is here, in India, where we have some of the most educated women in the world, while the poor women suffer from one of the highest rates of H.I.V./AIDS in the world.” That is a chilling contrast.
The sisters and women I met and worked with in Chennai understand the reality of poverty, H.I.V., depression, addiction and domestic violence that afflicts their community. But this doesn’t stop them from using their incredible strength, creativity and energy to help. They labor every day to ensure that the rights and privileges they’ve worked so hard to obtain are protected. They devote their lives to ensuring that families are cared for and well fed, and that children are immunized. They teach women skills to work and support their families. Theyhelp men overcome alcoholism and depression through empowerment workshops and retreats. This is the power of women to change their communities for the better.
I left India with a deeper appreciation for what religious women and men have done to allow me to have the privileges and freedoms I now enjoy. I also came away with a deep reverence for the sacrifices of those women I worked with who truly understand the power of kindness and perseverance to change the world. Let’s celebrate these women!
To learn more about the sister pictured above, check out our interview below with photojournalist Peter Lemieux. He told us about his experience working with the Nirmala Dasi Sisters in Mumbai, while reporting the July 2011 story, ‘Slumdog’ Sisters for ONE.
Tags: India Women Women in India