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Church commits to welfare of India's tribal peoples

Tribals, sometimes referred to as Adivasis, make up nearly 9% of the Indian population

Representative image of a Katkari woman with her children

Representative image of a Katkari woman with her children (Photo: Center for Social Action Database)

Published: March 21, 2023 05:13 AM GMT

Updated: March 21, 2023 05:51 AM GMT

Each morning, 46-year-old Shailaja rises at 5 a.m. Before 8 a.m., she has eaten breakfast and walked a mile up a mountain to an Indigenous village, where she tutors 22 teens in grades 8 to 10 in math and the Marathi language. Before the students begin attending the government school at 10 a.m., she also tries to help them with any other problems they have encountered.

Shailaja, who has been a teacher for 14 years, is one of a group of animators -- teachers, health workers and social workers -- trained and paid by the Archdiocese of Bombay to work with Indigenous, or tribal, villagers. She works out of the mission station in Alibag, a beach town about 60 miles south of Mumbai.

Tribals, sometimes referred to as Adivasis, make up nearly 9% of the Indian population. The Indian Constitution ensures their educational interests, provides economic safeguards and takes steps for political empowerment. The 2006 Forest Rights Act empowers forest dwellers to access and use the forest resources in the manner to which they were traditionally accustomed and aims to protect forest dwellers from unlawful evictions -- much of their land is mineral rich, and corporations have exploited the lack of documentation of ownership.

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In late February, visitors from the Pontifical Mission Societies-USA met with the animators and tribals under a shelter in the center of a rural village outside Alibag. While several dozen children sat on cloths spread on the ground under the tin-roofed shelter, the animators, who also were Indigenous, had an enthusiastic conversation with the visitors, translated by an archdiocesan priest. About 120 families from the Katkari ethnic group have lived in the village for 60-70 years and, across the dirt road from the shelter, villagers watched from the shade of their homes.

Although most of the animators are not Christian, they said they share with the Catholic Church a commitment to do social work and to love one another.

The animators spoke of the challenges they face: children reluctant to attend school; child marriage; addiction; making villagers aware of the importance of health.

Jayshree, a social worker for 20 years, said she earned eight times more in her previous job, but she said she felt this job was important. She said thanks to the paraprofessional degree she earned from the church, she feels empowered and is not afraid to go to any government office and demand the rights of the tribals are met -- for instance, by getting them toilets. She said government officials know they cannot fool her because she has had training.

Other animators said the children like to learn through interactive songs, and Jayshree led them in an echo song, with motions, about the importance of clean hands.

The animators encourage the parents not to treat their girls differently from their boys. They also discourage child marriage, fighting the idea that a girl must be married shortly after she reaches puberty. Some parents say, "My girl might not get a boy" if she is not married young.

The government age for marriage for a girl is 18. The animators feel they have had some success: Previously, girls would get married at ages 12-14; now marriages often are conducted when girls are 16-17.

Previn, the only male social worker in the group, said he once was able to prevent a child marriage in his village by explaining to the parents that the girl would have trouble in childbirth. He said sometimes if there is a child marriage, the parents make sure the animators are not present in the village, so the family will not get reported. Men who marry underage girls can receive up to two years in prison, a fine or both.

UNICEF says an estimated 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world. "As a result of norms assigning lower value to girls, as compared to boys, girls are perceived to have no alternative role other than to get married," said a report on the UNICEF website. It said girls "are expected to help with domestic chores and undertake household responsibilities in preparation for their marriage."

The Archdiocese of Bombay is just one of many Indian dioceses with a commitment to helping the tribals. In the neighboring Diocese of Vasai, Archbishop Felix Machado said the church has a duty to "live among people as brothers and sisters -- live among them."

"Everybody's our brother and sister, not just Christians," the archbishop told OSV News.

His diocese has a ministry to the Warli people, as well as to smaller ethnic groups like the Katkari. Many tribals in the diocese harvest rice, but when the growing season is over, they migrate to work in brick kilns.

As one example of church help, the Daughters of the Cross operate a boarding school for girls ages 5-15, so they can continue to get an education when their parents migrate, and the sisters train about 50 health workers once a month.

Sister Albina Murzello, a member of the order, often visits villages and hamlets or accompanies people when they have to go into the city to a hospital. Although the order's ministry has received donations from groups like The Pontifical Missions Societies, the Daughters of the Cross subsidize much of the work.


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