Nun Empowers Northern India’s Women with Education, Hope

John Isaac/World Bank

Sr. Daphne Sequeira helps transform the local culture with the education of women.

In a local culture prone to viewing women as property, Sister Daphne Sequeira has dedicated her life to offering education and a hopeful future to those in Northern India’s rural villages.

Seeing a girl “whose potential is suppressed, her freedom, her desires are suppressed, I say, this is such disrespect to God, who created in his image, who created us as man and woman in his image, who promised us to have life to its fullest,” lamented Sr. Daphne at a recent Voices of Faith event on March 9.

The Sister of the Sacred Heart had been invited to share her experience at the Vatican venue celebrating the work of women in the Church. “Education is important, but it is significantly important to women, because we all know that when a woman is educated, when a girl child is educated, there’s a ripple effect. She is the one who nurtures the child when he is growing. She’s the one for all practical purposes, who manages the household,” the Indian sister explained.

“I’m convinced that girls and women have to be educated,” she told CNA on March 9.

Sr. Daphne, who works with the Torpa Women’s Development Society for Women, travels to Northern India’s remote villages, offering literacy and life skills classes to women and girls who have been denied an education. She also helps the women receive microcredit loans to grow their families’ businesses.

Despite India’s “good programs and good policies” for education, such as the government’s decision in 2012 to offer free education for girls, “there is no conducive environment, and there is also no mechanism to implement all these things,” noted the Sister.

“And so especially where poverty is concerned, the poor families…it’s very easy for them to keep girls behind so that a girl – while her brothers are being educated, while her parents have gone to the field to work – the girl is managing the family.”

Tragically, in “tribal dominated areas,” human trafficking is not uncommon, added Sr. Daphne.

“Tribal girls are supplied to metropolitan cities for cheap domestic labor work…poverty is such that the parents feel that it’s an easy way to get rich – send a girl to the metropolitan city, then she works there and the money will come home. In many cases it doesn’t happen: the girl gets lost. Or when she comes back, she comes pregnant. And for these reasons quite often the education is suppressed.”

Sr. Daphne works hard to change this cultural norm. By offering women a basic education, she finds that they have “an instrument of empowerment, to their family, to the community, and to the society.”

The Sister of the Sacred Heart shared one of the many success stories of her program. Lilly, a 26-year-old mother of three, living in a “joint family” of 12 in a remote village, survives off her family’s sole livelihood of agriculture. They raise goats and forage in the forest for root vegetables to sell at the market.

Very often, the six kilometer walk to the market is dangerous. Men wait in the forest to steal from the women bringing their goods to sell. One day at Christmas time, Lilly was entrusted with the family’s fattened goat.

“Lilly was one kilometer away from the market when a man stopped her, took the goat from her, and produced a 500 rupee note for her,” Sr. Daphne said.

Although she refused the money, insisting it was not enough, the man persisted in his offers, adding ten rupee notes to the offer until he reached 580 rupees.

When Lilly returned home, she was severely scolded, as the goat was worth 2,000 rupees.

Lilly’s husband narrated this incident to Sr. Daphne.

“I said, ‘how is that, that Lily when she gets many notes of 580 rupees, that she thinks its a lot of money and does not realize the value of it, but you know the value of that money?’ And he said, ‘Sister, I have passed the 10th standard grade. She is illiterate.’ So I said, ‘whose fault is it?’”