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Indian Christian bodies told to tackle sexual harassment

United Christian Action forum calls for institutions to set up systems to embolden women to make complaints

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Indian Christian bodies told to tackle sexual harassment

Indian Christian women attend a program of United Christian Action on Nov. 17 on the silver jubilee of the ecumenical forum. The program included a discussion which stressed ways to make Christian institutions safer for women and children. (Photo supplied)

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Christian leaders and activists in India have made an impassioned plea to make their institutions free of sexual harassment and safer for children and women.

Catholic and Protestant leaders made the call at a panel discussion on gender justice and women's safety in Christian institutions in New Delhi. The discussion was part of the Nov. 17 silver jubilee programs of United Christian Action (UCA), an ecumenical forum of Indian Christians.

"Sexual harassment and gender injustice are everywhere and the church institution is no exception. It has to be acknowledged first and then addressed accordingly before it is too late," said Sister Tresa Paul, legal consultant at the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in New Delhi.

In September 2017, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India issued a set of guidelines to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace, but church institutions have not followed it up, she said.

The guidelines wanted every diocese to constitute an internal complaints committee "within six months, which did not happen," the Holy Cross nun told the gathering of 200 invited leaders.

Catholic Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi and Protestant Bishop Waris Masih of the Church of North India's Delhi Diocese were among the attendees. The prelates' presence was a sign that church authorities are willing to listen to concerns of sexual abuse within Christian institutions, Sister Paul said.

UCA chairwoman Esther Kar said the program discussed sexual violations and gender justice because "it is the most pressing issue in society," especially against the backdrop of the ongoing #MeToo movement.

The movement has gained momentum in India, with many women in the media, films and even the government claiming sexual harassment from prominent men in their workplaces.

Several speakers at the discussion said the first step for Christians is to accept that sexual harassment and gender injustice exist in Christian workplaces too. They also wanted church institutions to set up systems to embolden women to come out with complaints.

Karen Gabriel, a professor at St. Stephen's College in New Delhi, said the issue can be collectively addressed.

"The positive sign is that we have leaders and institutions that now are ready to recognize and acknowledge sexual harassment and gender justice," she said. 

Kavita Krishnan, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India, said that "even political parties are far behind" in addressing gender inequality and sexual harassment. "Our patriarchal society never acknowledges that there is a problem, which is the biggest problem," she said.

She said most cases of sexual harassment, including its worst form of rape, are often covered up because "it's a social taboo" to speak out about such violations.

"Often victims are blamed as being of loose character and it's feared to bring a bad name to families in a rigid society like India," she said.

A study by Thomson Reuters Foundation in July ranked India as the most dangerous place for women because of high incidences of gender inequality and violence, including rape, child marriage, female feticide and human trafficking. Syria and Afghanistan were ranked second and third.

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