USPG Programme Co-ordinator Anne Bonger reports on a programme set up by the Church of South India to promote equal rights for girls and protect girls from harassment and violence
Sitting in a small church in India, I was watching a group of 10 teenage girls performing a dance at a rally for girls’ rights organised by the Church of South India.
The girls, all dressed beautifully in matching saris, were re-enacting the everyday harassment and violence that some girls face in India.
I was in Ikkadu, a small town close to Chennai, to observe the Church of South India’s Focus 9/99 programme, which aims ‘to assure the future of the girl child’.
The programme got its name because there are 99 administrative districts in south India, and the church’s aim is to identify a congregation in each district and provide them with training in how to champion girls’ rights.
In the dance, the girls were all dressed in white, with their faces also whited out, while one girl played the role of a man. They were acting out a scene that occurs daily on public transport.
The man was brushing up against one of the girls, sexually harassing her, and trying to get her phone number. He tried persuading her and giving her money, but the girl kept refusing the man’s advances.
Finally, at the end of the dance, there was a shocking scene in which the man stabbed and killed the girl. I really wasn’t expecting the scene to end in this way. It was very powerful, to say the least.
I felt empathy for the girls. I know from what I read and hear about in the news that many women in the UK experience this sort of thing daily. But what shocked me about the scene in India was the degree of violence. And I realised that what the girls were acting out was not based on fantasy but conveyed a very sad and serious state of affairs.
I felt moved. The girls seemed mature beyond their years, perhaps because of the levels of violence and intimidation they’ve witnessed or experienced. In all of this, there was something very dignified about how they presented themselves.
The Church of South India hopes that the USPG-supported Focus 9/99 programme will raise awareness about these issues, both in the church and throughout society.
I was impressed that these issues are being dealt with so openly. I don’t think I’ve seen gender based violence addressed so directly in the church in the UK.
Protecting children’s rights
The church is promoting the importance of girls’ rights in a country where girls are less valued than boys. The situation is particularly difficult for Christian girls and women. Not only do women and girls face a lot of violence and intimidation, but because Christians mostly come from the Dalit community – the so-called ‘untouchables’ – they face further discrimination.
I visited Christchurch, in Kanchipuram, which is one of the churches participating in the Focus 9/99 programme.
Christchurch is a large church in a predominantly Hindu area. It comprises over 1,000 members, with a further nine satellite congregations in outlying villages.
Evidence of the training provided by Focus 9/99 is clearly seen in the activities of the congregations.
There is a women’s fellowship that keeps a smallholding where they grow vegetables for their families and to sell at market to generate income. This gives the women a degree of independence.
The women provide day care for children, which gives women more freedom to work, and there is a focus on nutrition as a form of preventative healthcare for families and children.
Significantly, the children are included in the life and worship of the church. This is very empowering for the children because they learn that they matter and are allowed to have and express a point of view. This means children are becoming bold in knowing about their rights.
Safeguarding is a key aspect of the Focus 9/99 initiative. Both adults and children in the church are being taught about child abuse – about what is and isn’t acceptable.
For example, the adults are taught how to look for signs that children might be facing difficulties, and they are shown how to communicate difficult ideas to children in the form of child-friendly stories. Similarly, children are taught about different types of touching and what is acceptable.
As a result, the children are happier and feel safe. And, naturally, they share what they are learning with their friends and in school – so that the message is spreading throughout the community to people of all faiths.
But there are also many heart-breaking stories that made me realise that some churches have a long way to go.
I sat down with some pupils from a church-run secondary school for girls. The girls all came from rural areas. I was sad to hear that in their local church they were largely ostracised and discriminated against because they were considered to be outsiders. It seems they were regarded as second-class citizens because they did not come from wealthy or ‘respectable’ families in the city. The girls told me they were not allowed to sing in the choir or even talk to anyone outside their group, including the priest. Instead, they were made to sit together on their own in the church balcony.
Little wonder they felt very upset about their situation, and I was very sad to observe that such divisions could exist in the church. I struggled to understand why, although perhaps it is not dissimilar to how some congregations in the UK can exclude those who don’t fit in.
Happily, the Focus 9/99 programme is trying to address this issue and is talking to the leadership of this church. I suppose the church in India is struggling to tackle centuries-old traditions.
This is just a snapshot of my visit. I also saw how the church is working to support children with hearing impairments and learning difficulties, both in practical ways and in helping them to feel included in the life of the church. Clearly, there is a lot of work to do but, on the evidence of what I saw, a great deal of inspiring work is already taking place.
For more about the work of the church in India, visit www.uspg.org.uk/india