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Kerala women's panel, Church lock horns over nuns

Kerala women's panel, Church lock horns over nuns

Author: J Gopikrishnan
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: June 10, 2008

Commission objects to bequeathal of adolescent girls' properties to Church

A major controversy has erupted in Kerala with the State women's commission asking the CPI(M)-led Government to enact a law barring appointment of girls under 18 years of age as nuns by churches. Accusing the Church of "brain-washing adolescent girls" to accept "sisterhood", the commission has called for protection of their property rights.

The issue has brought the Church and the State Government face to face, with the clergy launching a 'crusade' against the women's commission. The Congress has sided with the Church and dubbed the commission's recommendation "anti-minority".

The recommendations, mooted by KWC chairperson Justice D Sreedevi, include banning the entry of girls below the age of 18 into convents, penal provisions for parents and/or persons forcing the girls into sisterhood, ensuring that the property rights of girls appointed by convents are protected and re-habilitation of those withdrawing from 'sisterhood'. The other recommendations which irked the Church are preventing the bequeathal of nuns' properties to the Church and provisions for retrieval of such properties as and when nuns decide to quit the convent.

The Church has vehemently opposed the KWC move and described the recommendations as a "thoughtless process". It was allowing only girls above 18 years of age as nuns, it clarified.

"The commission's remarks have hurt the sentiments of the community of nuns and priests, who have been serving the society irrespective of caste and creed for centuries," said the Major Archbishop of Syro Malankara Catholic Church in a Press release. He said that the commission should have studied the issue before commenting on it. "According to our canon, no person can become a priest or nun without attaining 18 years of age. However, prescribing an age limit for a person interested in priesthood would be a breach of individual freedom," he said.

"As a matter of fact, no woman can be a nun before the age of 20. Then too, a person takes temporary vows initially," Rev Dr Babu Jospeh, spokesperson for the Catholic Bishop Council of India, said.

But the KWC chairperson refutes the arguments. "I have seen a lot many incidents to the contrary and received several complaints. I agree that a girl becomes a nun only after 18 or 20. My objection is against the recruitment of poor girls at the age of 12 or 13 by providing/promising free education, accommodation and offering money to their parents," Justice Sreedevi told The Pioneer over telephone from Thiruvananthapuram.

"The girls are being moulded or brainwashed at a tender age to accept the life of nuns. This is not fair. How can a parent decide the fate of his daughter without her consent? I am not against any religion. I am here for social justice and empowerment of women," argued Justice Sreedevi.

While the Church denied appointing under-18 girls to the convent, it stoutly defended the property right provisions. "As regards the right to family property, first of all it is the prerogative of parents to bequeath their property to their children. As per the Church rules, the share of property given to a religious person becomes the property of the organisation he/she belongs to.

This is so because of (a) a religious person voluntarily renounces the right to individual ownership of property at the time of becoming a permanent member of a religious congregation; (b) a religious person is entitled to all the legitimate rights within the religious congregation; and (c) in a religious congregation all properties are held in common," said Rev Dr Babu Jospeh.

"It would have been highly desirable had the Kerala Women's Commission ascertained all the right information regarding the Church's practices and then made its recommendation," he added.

However, dissenting notes were heard from within the community. Joseph Pulikunnel, who has been campaigning for reforms in the Catholic Church, termed the commission recommendation "a landmark". He said there were cases of girls below 18 years of age, especially those from poor families, who had been forced to join convents. Then, he added, there had been instances of nuns who left convents after some years and failed to get back their family assets. He chose to describe the commission's recommendations as an issue of human rights rather than that of religion.

To get the early-bird advantage, the Congress spared no time in reacting. State Congress president Ramesh Chennithala slammed the KWC recommendations as "anti-minority" and demanded the ouster of Justice Sreedevi. Reacting to the Congress' allegation, Justice Sreedevi said she was sad about the stand of political parties "who are supposed to lead the moves ensuring social justice and empowerment of women".

"Such parties should look at their past and glorious deeds of their predecessors in a bid to achieve social justice. But now all of them are looking for vote banks. Anyway, I am committed to my point and there's no going back," she added.

Major provisions in the recommendation

* Ban the entry of under-18 girls to convents

* Prosecute parents/persons forcing girls to become nuns

* Protect the family share of girls who become nuns

* Nuns' properties should not be bequeathed to churches

* Rehabilitate girls who leave churches

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