Women responsible for holding India’s bishops accountable on gender policy

The remarkable thing about a landmark document on gender policy written by the Catholic bishops of India is the extraordinary extent to which women were involved in the process, says an Indian lay woman who assisted with the document.

“Not only did women set the agenda for this meeting, 40 of them were present in the [delegation], participating in all the group discussions and plenary sessions,” Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala said during a recent webcast lecture on the topic, “Creating a Roadmap for Gender Equality in the Church.”

Gaijwala said the staff of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) Commission for Women, for which she acts as a consult, worked to allow everyone a voice in the issue.

“We had organized right through the year before the plenary assembly grassroots meetings and national consultations to propose topics for this plenary assembly and to elicit grassroots realities and expectations. All of this was brought to the plenary assembly,” she said.

Gaijwala spoke Aug. 26 at a teleconference organized by FutureChurch, the Cleveland based organization that works to make changes in the Catholic church to allow all Catholics to more fully participate in church life and leadership. More than 75 people registered for the event.

Talking about the plenary session with India’s bishops, Gaijwala said there were five women speakers, including herself as one of the keynote speakers. Her paper was focused on women in the church.

“In another momentous first the bishops nominated three women, SMMI Sr. Lily Francis [Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate], who was secretary of the CBCI Commission for Women, Dr. Rita Noronha the other keynote speaker, and myself, to be on the drafting committee. Many of our recommendations were accepted by the bishops and included in the statement on their commitment to action. This statement, approved by 163 bishops who were present at the meeting, documented the bishops commitment to evolve within a period of one year regional gender policies with time bound action plans and monitoring mechanisms.”

Gajiwala said the CBCI Women’s Commission studied national and international gender policies, taking into account recommendations from the women at the grassroots level and those who attended the plenary assembly. A balancing act was necessary between the bishops and society.

“Walking the tightrope between what women wanted and what the bishops could relate was not easy while drawing up this policy,” she said. “With regard to empowering women in society we knew that we would have the full support of the bishops. Where we had to tread carefully was with regard to women in the church.  It is true that the bishops have made changes to the original draft, but for the most part it remains the same.”

Gajiwala answered questions from listeners following her presentation. She was asked how it happened that the bishops in India even took up the cause for women.

“Initially the bishops took up this challenge of equality for women because women are obviously poor, marginalized, and this was the original focus,” Gajiwala said. “But the moment they took up the situation of women in society, obviously they also had to take it up in the church. There have been a number of meetings focusing on this.”

The CBCI has been restructured, and they no longer have a committee to monitor the policy implementation. That now falls to the three rites in India — Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara. Gajiwala said the women are now looked after in their own rites with their own commission. She also said she is trying to get the topic back on the agenda for the CBCI Council for Women.

Gajiwala said it has been five years since this policy has been released.

“What is important for women to realize is with this policy, the bishops have handed power over to them,” she said. “In effect they have said this is what the church is committed to do for women. This is what we are willing to do to make resources available for. The bishops have made themselves accountable. What remains is for us women and men, priests and religious, to hold them to their word.”

Gajiwala’s talk was part of an ongoing series of teleconferences FutureChurch sponsors to provide, according to its website, “Catholics with the opportunity to hear and engage leading Catholic theologians, biblical scholars, journalists, activists, ministers and others right in the comfort of your home.”

The next FutureChurch teleconference is Sept. 15 and will feature St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson. The Fordham University theologian’s address is titled “Will the Real Mary Please Stand Up? Understanding the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in our salvation history.” For details visit https://futurechurch.org/events/teleconference-with-sr-elizabeth-johnson.

[Elizabeth Elliott is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is eelliott@ncronline.org.]

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