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Brave nun fights for women's rights in Pakistan

Female activists such as Sister Genevieve are in short supply in the Muslim-majority South Asian nation

Brave nun fights for women's rights in Pakistan

Pakistani activist for women's rights, Sister Genevieve Ram Lal, became the national director of the Catholic Women's Organization in 2012. (ucanews.com photo)

The year was 1986. Sister Genevieve Ram Lal was being driven away from Lahore High Court when she noticed armed men in a car following her.

"We were fighting a case for abducted Christian brick makers in a nearby district. The Franciscan priest, sitting behind the steering wheel, knew the streets well and managed to lose the attackers. We know they were brick kiln owners," recalled the 59-year-old nun of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary congregation.

"Fact-finding missions in brick kilns were always under the shadow of guns. The armed guards of kiln owners circle around as we collected interviews. The victims usually change the narrative by the time human rights workers reach them," she said. 

Presently, 58 nuns from her congregation serve in the fields of education, medicine and pastoral work. According to the latest Catholic directory, 29 women congregations are present in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Over the coming years, Sister Genevieve's resolution as an activist only grew stronger as she became closely associated with the Protestant's Young Women's Christian Association and the Catholic Church's human rights body, the National Commission for Justice and Peace. In 2012, she became the national director of the Catholic Women's Organization(CWO) which observes its 10th anniversary in July.

With offices in six dioceses, CWO provides legal aid for cases of domestic violence, forced conversions and forced marriages, kidnappings, separation between couples, custody of children, and theft — in the cases of domestic servants. In 2016, the CWO conducted 61 seminars on subjects such as women's leadership, family life and human rights.

Free checkups and medicines in CWO medical camps were delivered to 457 patients under its one-year preventive health care project. Some 40 young women are presently enrolled in two CWO sewing centers. The projects primarily support uneducated minority women in slums.

"The Muslim male sits atop our social strata, followed by Muslim women, whereas minority women are considered fourth-grade citizens. Most of them are not yet eager to attend awareness seminars and are happy with their lot," Sister Genevieve told ucanews.com. "Many non-government organizations report organizing women groups but in reality they are still scattered. Highlighting their name on banners is a major priority in joint collaborations."

Sister Genevieve said the government departments and institutions responsible for providing justice are not gender sensitive. Since corruption is rife, it becomes difficult for women to even report their cases. "They continue to face the unequal and prejudiced treatment even after the case is registered," Sister Genevieve said.

"We are utterly confused in our present life, where we are crushed by the burden of terrible terrorism, religious intolerance, dehumanization of minorities and target killing of our future generations," she said.

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The nun, however, lauded recent government steps for protecting women including the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act 2016. The Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that advises the legislature whether or not a certain law is repugnant to Islam, usually counters such legislation.

Last year, the council proposed a bill that allows a husband to "lightly" beat his wife, prohibits mixing the genders in schools, hospitals and offices, and bans dance, music and sculptures created in the name of art.

According to Father Morris Jalal, founder and program director of Lahore-based Catholic TV, female religious activists such as Sister Genevieve are "very rare" in Pakistan. The Capuchin priest emphasized a "dire need" to empower religious women.

Father Jalal, believes most nuns are very much bound within convents. "Many congregations cannot even afford vehicles. Habit-clad nuns walking on roads is a common sight," he said. "Sewing centers come next in their endeavors but their involvement in civil society is very rare. Their fight for women's rights and against sexual exploitation is mostly limited to annual meetings or awareness seminars in communities," said the priest.

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