Global Perspective

July 20, 2005 Vol. 3, No. 12

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Virginia Saldanha
Virginia Saldanha is a woman activist working in India for the empowerment of women through Church institutions as well as networking with secular organizations in the struggle for justice and peace.



Open Letters to the New Pope:

Asian women request a true dialogue

By Virginia Saldanha

(Editor's Note: Global Perspective is featuring Catholics from across the globe writing open letters to the new pope, Benedict XVI. Today, Virginia Saldanha writes from Mumbai, India.)

Dear Pope Benedict,

Read more letters to the pope
  • Jesuit Fr. Francis Gonsalves from Chennai, India: Wilkommen, Welcome, Swagatham!.
  • Joseph Adero Ngala from Nairobi, Kenya: Africa knows the church's good works, not its doctrine.
  • Geraldine Hawkes from Adelaide, Australia: In the right hands, a garden can flourish.
  • Janina Gomes from Mumbai, India: Churchgoers must confront some tough questions.
  • Michael Gillgannon from La Paz, Bolivia: We can, must learn from our errors.
  • Antonio D. Sison from the Philippines: The musings of a Filipino Catholic.
  • Dominic Emmanuel from New Delhi: Building bridges to other religions doesn't compromise Catholic identity.
  • Virginia Saldanha from Mumbai, India: Asian women request a true dialogue.
  • Greg Lopez from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: How much is too much?.
  • Greetings from women in Asia. We warmly welcome you as head of the universal Catholic church. We are hopeful that as the head of the Catholic church and our Holy Father, you will adopt an understanding and dialogical approach towards the concerns of women in the church. Permit me to bring to your attention the situation of women in Asia.

    The Gospels tell us that Jesus included women in his ministry and responded to women's concerns with courage and empathy. He challenged the oppressive laws and culture of his time to bring fullness of life to women. Asian women yearn for this fullness of life promised by Jesus.

    Our churches are full on Sundays. Women form the majority of the congregations. In the small Christian community which is promoted by the Bishops of Asia as the "New Way of Being Church" (5th Plenary Assembly of the FABC in Bandung, 1990) women are trainers, facilitators and the most reliable and regular participants. In fact, women help build and maintain small Christian communities. Women "minister" to the communities in the absence of men. "If women go, we have to close the church," a Japanese Bishop commented. A Sri Lankan bishop said that in a Gospel sharing session he attended, the deep spiritual experience of a married woman touched and helped him realize that the small Christian community is the way to be church. The women keep the faith and church alive in Asia.

    However, the existence of the majority of women in Asia is a struggle to survive beneath the weight of poverty compounded by negative attitudes in culture and tradition. These are women who give birth throughout their reproductive lives; they take care of the family and are forced to go out and earn to keep their families from hunger. They are women victims of physical, psychological and sexual violence; women deprived of opportunities for advancement in social and political life; women oppressed in the name of religion; women without a voice. While a few women from the middle class have opportunities because of their economic and social position of advantage, most women continue to struggle for their day to day existence and that of their families. It is not just economic empowerment that will improve their situation; a holistic approach is needed. Attitudes towards women and the poor have to change. The bulk of the membership of the church in Asia is these poor women.

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    The latest census of the Indian population highlights the bias against the girl child very clearly. Parents make the choice to abort the unwanted girl child. A bishop in India once remarked, "The girl-child will have value only when females can become bishops." This is a figurative statement but says it all. Women, even with high levels of education, are under pressure to abort female fetuses and produce a male child, who is valued more than a female child. The reason being, a male child has better chances to succeed economically, politically and reach higher levels of leadership in every sphere of life. In India parents have the added burden of providing a dowry to marry off their daughters and preserve their daughter's virginity for marriage (especially in the context of high prevalence of rape and the double standards of morality). Culture and tradition are heavily biased against women in most of Asia.

    I work for the empowerment of women at various levels in the church in Asia. Without full support from the clergy and hierarchy, there is not much we can achieve since women have no power to make decisions in the church. The wave of conservatism sweeping through the church makes it even more difficult. It tends to take women back in time as well, reinforcing the oppressive culture.

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    From Genesis 1:27, we are convinced that both men and women, created in the image and likeness of God, need to act together in all spheres of life to make God present in those areas. It is with this firm belief that women ask to be given the opportunity to stand alongside men in leadership in the world as well as in the church.

    In your letter "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World", optimistically, I detect a glimmer of hope. It states that the reflections are meant to serve as an "impetus for dialogue with all men and women of good will, in a sincere search for the truth and in a common commitment to the development of ever more authentic relationships." We hope that you will be open to consult with and listen to a wide spectrum of women to begin this dialogue.

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    Together with the women of Asia, I earnestly request you to open a true dialogue with women. It will help everyone become aware that women are not only the most faithful followers of Christ (like the women in the time of Jesus) but that we also love the church and want to contribute in every way to the witnessing presence of the church in Asia and the world. We want to continue the mission of Jesus, to bring wholeness and healing to the world.

    With our deepest respects and prayers for carrying on the mission of Christ,

    We the women of Asia, remain faithful and committed to this mission with you.

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