Nuns provide hope for mentally ill women in central India

Rehabilitation center helps destitute women sexually exploited and left to die on roads, with no one to care for them
Nuns provide hope for mentally ill women in central India

Dalima and Sister Lissa Maria at the Ashirwad Rehabilitation Center in central India. (Photo by Saji Thomas)

After being found destitute and heavily pregnant in a village in central India six years ago, Dalima now lives in a safe place.

Sisters of the Adoration of Blessed Sacrament discovered her in a disheveled condition on a dusty street in the Maoist-infested Bastar district, Chhattisgarh state.

"She looked horrific with her untidy over-grown hair, her body wrapped in a dirty sari and dirt-blackened face," recalled 65-year-old Sister Lissa Maria on the day they found Dalima.

Sister Maria said Dalima had been sexually exploited and was seven months pregnant.

"We don't have any record of who exploited Dalima or for how long," Sister Maria says.

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The nuns took her to their Ashirwad (Hindi for blessing) Rehabilitation Center for mentally ill women where she remains today.

Dalima gave birth while she was severely mentally ill and the baby was given to an adoption center and all legal formalities were fulfilled, Sister Maria says. The nuns think that Dalima is in her mid-30s.

Today Dalima looks, acts and talks like a normal person but says she is unable to remember most of her life before the center. She still cannot remember her parents, where she was born or her full name.

What she is able to recall is that she came from the Kotpad area of neighboring Odisha state and that her in-laws treated her badly.

"My mother-in-law used to strangle me and ill treat me," Dalima says.

"But still I don't know how I left my home," she explains.

Despite it all, Dalima is cheerful when she works with the nuns as they cook and garden.


Rejected by families

Once a woman has regained her mental health, the sisters say that it's typical she will remain rejected by her family.

Champawali Joshi, 51, is one such case. Police brought her in from off the street in 2013 and due to the care she received at the center she recovered. Joshi now wants to return to her family but they will not accept her.

"It is a common problem. Joshi's dream is very unlikely to come true because Indian families seldom welcome back mentally ill persons even if they are cured," says Sister Ancy Maria, 67.

Another women at the center, Damenti Patel, comes from a well to do family, says Sister Maria.

Patel's nephew "came and visited her on a couple of occasions" but her family want her to stay at the center despite her having recovered, the nun says.

As well as Dalima, Joshi and Patel, there are 31 women currently living at the center.

"Most often these women were sexually exploited and lived an animal-like existence," Sister Maira says.  

Sister Libertha Kochupurackal established the center in 2008 after seeing "so many mentally ill women left to die on roads and in other public places, with no one to care for them even from the government."

The nun says the center was the fulfillment of a 35-year-long dream. 

"It came true, at the God-appointed time," the 67-year-old says.

Today the police will automatically bring mentally sick women to the center, says police officer Bibiana Hemrom, who is in-charge of the state's women's holding cell in Baster district.

"I myself have admitted at least 35 mentally ill women to the center," the 55-year-old female officer says adding that police lack proper facilities and that the nuns provide good care.

"If these women are not admitted in the center, they would die on the road," she said.

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