Sister Annmary helps "untouchable" women find work in Odisha
The nun belongs to the Congregation of the Union of Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 2014 she was the first Catholic to arrive in Boudh district. Since then, she has taught children, and helped women learn to sew. For the first time, 30 women went to a government office.
Boudh (AsiaNews) – An Indian nun has challenged the social stigma of untouchability that still surrounds Dalits to help women find work in Odisha. Sister Annmary Thekkekandathil Andrews, of the Union of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM), has made this her missionary vocation.
She arrived in Boudh in 2014, a district where no Catholic before her had dared to visit Dalits. After "establishing the first contacts with villagers and gaining their trust, I decided to help Dalit women, mostly mothers and housewives," she told AsiaNews.
Sister Annmary began her novitiate in Bangalore (Karnataka) in 1975 and two year later made her perpetual vows. Before coming to Odisha, she worked in Kodaikanal, Chennai, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu Kashmir, Delhi, and Zambia. Everywhere, she served the poor as a teacher, social worker, group coordinator, organiser, and provincial leader of her congregation.
When she arrived in Boudh district, she knew that she had her work cut out because of the veil of discrimination that hung over Dalits. Theoretically protected by the Indian constitution, which banned the caste system (art 17), they are still very much marginalised. Their status is usually associated with humble and dirty jobs, as well as illiteracy.
"I still remember the day I arrived,” she said, “when the one who introduced me to the village told me not to touch them or sit down in their homes. Today that’s all changed.”
By visiting six villages, the nun managed to win over the locals. At present, she teaches at St John's School, which is run by the Resurrection of Jesus parish. "We started with children education. Nobody helped us, except Fr Nabokishore Digal, the local parish priest."
"In addition to teaching, my deepest desire is to work for the poor, for those whose human dignity and rights are in danger,” she said.
For this reason, she picked groups of women, all Hindus, "who needed to learn trades to support themselves and their families. Thus, we help them build self-confidence, and understand that as people they have value and dignity and can be productive members of society." In two years, "we taught many women the art of sewing, as well as incense and candle making. Now at least 30 of them are earning some money."
From this came to the idea of breaking another taboo, that of Dalit social inclusion. Some 30 women went to the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) and the Rural Self-Employment Training Institutes (RSETI), two government agencies in charge of entrepreneurship development in rural areas. "For all of them, this was the first time inside a government office,” Sr Annmary said.
The missionary also donated sewing machines to eight young women, which brought in many more. "At first people were very suspicious of us nuns and of Catholics. When we opened classes for children and their parents, they told us that it would be hard for them to accept us. However, my deep faith in God sustained my commitment to the poor and needy. I let myself be inspired by Jesus and Nano Nagle, the founder of our congregation."
"When I asked people why they did not set up their own businesses, they would answer, ‘Because no one would buy things from us since we belong to the lowest caste and are untouchables',” she said.
“I wanted to change this perception and help them change their attitude, giving them back their innate human dignity." Thus, ”Today, women in Boudh earn a living sewing. The first shop has opened in the area," she said with satisfaction.