When children the same age were at school and playing around, Rukshana Asharf was married off at the age of 14. Ashraf, now 31, says she "went through hell" during the first decade of her marriage until she met some Catholic nuns six years ago at Parsana Nagar, a settlement for domestic workers on the outskirts of Rajkot in Gujarat state in western India
. In her marriage's initial years, Ashraf said she was under virtual house arrest. "I was not allowed to move out of the house and my husband's family did not allow me to talk to neighbors," says the mother of two children. "The situation was so pathetic that even to talk to my brothers and father I required permission from my husband or in-laws, who kept a watch on all my activities as if I was thief or a criminal." The situation began to change after Ashraf met some Catholic nuns, who visited her home in 2006 as part of their women empowerment program.
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They explained to her the need to become self-reliant so that she could resist some of the abuse a women can experience within a family. "I was initially scared but gradually mustered the courage to follow their words," she says. The nuns of Devapriaya (beloveds of God) Sisters, a local congregation founded by former Bishop Gregory Karotemprel of Rajokot, aims to help poor women have a greater awareness of their rights and offers training and advice on how to earn an income. After more than 10 years, Ashraf says she has benefited greatly in her association with the nuns. "Today I am extremely happy. I decide what I want to do, rather than taking orders from others, and also take care of my family," she said. Asharf makes a monthly income of 3,000 rupees (US$50) from the embroidery work she learned with the help of nuns. Her husband, who works as a driver, does not object to her work as it brings in extra income. Neither do her in-laws have a problem, because the "money from my work is meant" for all. Asharf says she enjoys the freedom, the work and respect she now gets in the family and society.
Rukshana Asharf's life changed after Catholic nuns helped her find her place in society after she "went through hell" in the first decade of her marriage. (Photo by Saji Thomas/ucanews.com)
Bishop Karotemprel, who founded the congregation in 1989, said the nuns have helped "thousands of voiceless domestic workers" like Asharf to find "their place and value in their families and society." The 84-year-old bishop said he founded the congregation to help poor women in what was a newly developing diocese. "Thousands of people were living in the slums. We wanted to help them," said Bishop Karotemprel who is from the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI). Sister Grace Kollencherry, 47, who has been a part of the women empowerment program since it began in 1998, said the nuns offer women self-help groups and classes on poverty eradication, hygiene and income generation. "We have been successful in creating awareness among women
to identify their potential so that they can help improve their life and that also of their families," says Sister Kollencherry. In the past 20 years, the Devapriaya Sisters have "transformed the lives of thousands of poor women and improved their living condition," says the nun. One such women, Rajeshwari Goswamy, told ucanews.com that she works as a school cleaner but has also become a "leader of women" in the slum area that she lives in. The 32-year-old mother of two children said the nuns made a real difference in the lives of women by helping them understand that they are not "domestic animals" confined for household work. "The sisters taught me to stand for our rights
and approach the authorities when our rights are denied," Goswamy told ucanews.com. Bishop Jose Chittooparambil of Rajkot said the nuns have focused on the development of all people in their area, especially the poor. They do not discriminate against anyone based on their religion, he said. "Church efforts have brought very positive changes for the women but we need to do more to make everyone more self-reliant," said Bishop Chittooparambil.