In a local culture prone to viewing women as property, Sister Daphne Sequeira has dedicated her life to offering education and a hopeful future to those in northern India's rural villages.
Seeing a girl "whose potential is suppressed, her freedom, her desires are suppressed, I say, this is such disrespect to God, who created in his image, who created us as man and woman in his image, who promised us to have life to its fullest", lamented Sr Daphne at a Voices of Faith event on 9 March 2014.
The Sister of the Sacred Heart had been invited to share her experience at the Vatican venue celebrating the work of women in the Church. "Education is important, but it is significantly important to women, because we all know that when a woman is educated, when a girl child is educated, there's a ripple effect. She is the one who nurtures the child when he is growing. She's the one for all practical purposes, who manages the household," the Indian sister explained.
"I'm convinced that girls and women have to be educated," she told Catholic News Agency (CNA).
Sr Daphne, who works with the Torpa Women's Development Society for Women, travels to northern India's remote villages, offering literacy and life skills classes to women and girls who have been denied an education. She also helps the women receive microcredit loans to build their families' businesses.
Despite India's "good programs and good policies" for education, such as the government's decision in 2012 to offer free education for girls, "There is no conducive environment, and there is also no mechanism to implement all these things," noted Sister Daphne.
"And so especially where poverty is concerned, the poor families ... it's very easy for them to keep girls behind so that a girl – while her brothers are being educated, while her parents have gone to the field to work – the girl is managing the family."
Tragically, in "tribal dominated areas", human trafficking is not uncommon, she added.
"Tribal girls are supplied to metropolitan cities for cheap domestic labour work ... poverty is such that the parents feel that it's an easy way to get rich – send a girl to the metropolitan city, then she works there and the money will come home. In many cases it doesn't happen: the girl gets lost. Or when she comes back, she comes pregnant. And for these reasons quite often the education is suppressed."
Sr Daphne works hard to change this cultural norm. By offering women a basic education, she finds that they have "an instrument of empowerment, to their family, to the community, and to the society".
The Sister of the Sacred Heart shared one of the many success stories of her program. Lilly, a 26-year-old mother of three, living in a "joint family" of 12 in a remote village, survives off her family's sole livelihood of agriculture. They raise goats and forage in the forest for root vegetables to sell at the market.
Very often, the six kilometre walk to the market is dangerous. Men wait in the forest to steal from the women bringing their goods to sell. One day at Christmas time, Lilly was entrusted with the family's fattened goat.
"Lilly was one kilometre away from the market when a man stopped her, took the goat from her, and produced a 500 rupee note for her," Sr Daphne said.
Although she refused the money, insisting it was not enough, the man persisted in his offers, adding ten rupee notes to the offer until he reached 580 rupees.
When Lilly returned home, she was severely scolded, as the goat was worth 2,000 rupees.
Lilly's husband narrated this incident to Sr Daphne.
"I said, 'How is that, that Lily when she gets many notes of 580 rupees, that she thinks is a lot of money and does not realise the value of it, but you know the value of that money?' And he said, 'Sister, I have passed the 10th standard grade. She is illiterate.' So I said, 'Whose fault is it?'"
"This is the situation of many women there. They are cheated, exploited, and then, quite often, they get scolded or their voices are suppressed by family members who are so-called educated."
The next month, Sr Daphne asked Lilly to share her experience at a meeting in the village. The other women quickly expressed empathy. "For them it was common, and they came up with each one of their stories, and they said, 'Oh I am not allowed to talk in the family. Whenever I open my mouth they say, "You don't understand, you keep quiet." Our opinion is not taken'."
Many women expressed their desire to be educated as children, but they had been kept away to look after siblings or see to the domestic work.
"I said, 'The time and opportunity is not lost. Would you like to be educated?'" recounted Sr Daphne. "In one voice, they all said 'Yes! We would like to be!'"
In that village, they began classes for 1.5 hours a day, six days a week. For eight months, the women were taught about alphabets and numbers, monetary notes, how to read bank books and write accounts. They were also exposed to government documents and instructed in how to fill out a government application.
"Today, Lilly is the secretary of that group," said Sr Daphne. "The whole life had changed in that village. These women, when village meetings are held, they go – they sit there for the meetings. If there are some important issues which are ignored, they themselves bring it (up)."
The results of Sr Daphne's efforts are tangible and widespread.
"In the past three years, these women have motivated 600 women for this literacy program ... In all the 12-13 villages where these women are educated, the whole life had changed. In the livelihood, the cheating is minimised. Their relationships are better. the health status is better. The important thing is that every child from this village now is going to school."
Sr Daphne hopes that the Church, which "is working really selflessly in the corners of the nation where our government has not reached," can continue offering help to women and through them, the wider culture.
If "one Lilly" is "promoted in every village, our nation will see very different things", she concluded.
Catholic News Agency