Have you changed the world today?

by Dorothy Fernandes


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Have you changed the world today?

What does this mean? I wonder: How can you change the world when you are working in a very difficult situation, with many hurdles and barriers? But as I deeply reflect on what is happening around us, I feel there are a number of good things happening, so many positive initiatives to bring about change.

I like to sit down and reflect on my own life and what I do each day. Then I look around and see what is happening to the people around me. I was doing this meditation in March, and so my focus went to women — how they are doing and how they are organizing their lives.

Not just March 8 is International Women's Day, and not just March is our month!

I can think of thousands of women who have changed my perceptions, my thinking, my understanding of spirituality, and I especially appreciate those who have silently challenged me to blossom out into the woman I have become today.

When I think of the women who live in the slums, I realize they too have come a long way on this journey called change. From being engaged only in their homes, they have dared to move out in search of livelihood.

The women of the resettlement colony Bhikha Chak had just lived in their one-room houses, spending their time on household chores or sitting around gossiping. We asked them to become part of our organization, Aashray Abhiyan (which campaigns for shelter rights) and we invited them to visit the office downtown.

Earlier, they had known only their immediate neighborhood and the vegetable market; those were their boundaries. The usual practice is for the man to earn the money and do the shopping for the family.

They exclaimed, "By calling us to the office, for the first time we have come to Gandhi Maidan!" (Gandhi Maidan is the heart of the city of Patna.) "By making us part of this organization, you have exposed us to a new world."

Today, they have gone beyond those boundaries and have reached what must have seemed the impossible.

From being confined to her house, this is the new Indian woman emerging to find her space.

"Being part of Aashray Abhiyan is awakening us to our rights; by inviting us to become part of collective struggles for housing and space in the city you are exposing us to another new world."

A world that goes beyond caste and creed! We now have one focus — that we have rights and that we will not get them unless we come together. The common factor is that we are all economically poor; we don't have enough money to own a house or to buy land.

When we as weaker individuals come together, there is a power within the group. We have learned from each other as we live in the same situations and have become empowered listening to each other's story of struggle.

These women — Geeta, Pratima, Asha, Sunita, Sangeeta, Anita — have with our assistance formed their own self-help groups. We showed them how to link up with the Punjab National Bank. They have learned to do their bank transactions independently, and take out loans for their economic growth.

This exposure has helped them advance as they have also joined the work force of the Labor Department of the government of Bihar. This has brought a tremendous change in their families. All their children are pursuing their studies and have aspirations to become someone in life.

Then there are women in the rural area of Islamganj, near Patna. They are the ones who have risked moving out of the confines of their homes. They believe that since they moved out and have become "exposed," they have discovered their hidden strength.

Bedami Devi is a widow. She lost her husband some 25 years ago. By sewing clothes and then later working with women, she was forced to move to places she had not been.

I supported her by saying, "You can do it," when she was called to the speaker's dais for the first time and asked to share her experiences. She was diffident at first, but once she spoke out and there was a huge applause, she realized that I was right.

I had never realized that what I said had impacted the lives of these women, until I sat and reflected on these experiences, on these women's stories. I personally believe that there is a power within you, and it is only when you are put to the test, that the best comes out in you.

Yes, I have changed the world, I have tried to enable them to discover their inner strength, have helped them move one pace beyond.

It's true that once a woman dares to move out of the confines of her home, there is no turning back; she changes and becomes an agent of change in turn.

Very often we are not recognized; the patriarchal mindset can never accept the contribution of women. Indian women have undertaken a long journey and there is no turning back.

[Dorothy Fernandes is a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from India. She presently serves as vice provincial of the Indian province while continuing to be deeply engaged with the urban poor of Patna, Bihar.]