Many years ago, Babita Pinto came across some words of St Teresa of Kolkata that, she says, really touched her heart: ‘I alone can’t change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create ripples.’

Ever since, Ms Pinto has been creating ripples, in her own life and in the lives of those she serves as Head of Programs at Caritas India. The first woman to hold that position in the history of the organisation, she is also the first to represent the Asia region on the Women’s Committee on Leadership, Equality and Participation at Caritas Internationalis.

While in Australia as the guest of Caritas Australia, she made a special trip to Melbourne on Monday 30 October to speak at the Melbourne campus of the Australian Catholic University (ACU). Addressing a gathering that included those working in the health, education, Church and community sectors, as well as ACU alumni and students, she shared some of her own experiences of overcoming obstacles and challenging stereotypes, outlined many of the significant development challenges that India faces—especially those that affect the lives of women—and highlighted some of the ways Caritas Australia is supporting innovative projects in India that make a real difference in the lives of women and their whole communities.

‘Testing the waters’

Raised in what she described as ‘a very traditional, conservative Catholic family’, Babita was newly wed and had only recently graduated from her studies when she joined Caritas India at the age of 23, hoping that it would provide an environment in which she could balance a rewarding career with raising a family.

While she has certainly had her struggles, she says, those hopes have been rewarded. Over the years, her work with Caritas has ranged from handling communications and leading humanitarian aid and risk reduction to working on migration, anti–human trafficking and reconciliation initiatives. Developing broad experience in the core issues of development, she has focused particularly on women, children, smallholder farmers and disability. And as a specialist in disaster-management, she has led numerous humanitarian responses.

Her journey through the ranks at Caritas India hasn’t always been easy, and she had to find creative ways to challenge entrenched attitudes and stereotypes, not only among male colleagues but also among women in an organisation that has long been dominated by men at the senior leadership level. In India, she said, ‘you have a culture of obedience, which is really humbling—I do believe in a culture of obedience—but it should not also contribute to creating a situation where you feel inferior.’

Initially she found herself confined to desk jobs because of concerns that field work might be unsafe for a woman. ‘But of course, the more you’re pushed to the corner, you will always bounce back.’ Over time, she found ways to break down preconceived ideas and to demonstrate her abilities, so that people’s trust and confidence in her increased. ‘You need to inculcate the trust within yourself. And because you start trusting your own self, you also gain that confidence.’

It’s a message she would like to pass on to younger women. ‘Explore the uncertainty and seek change,’ she said. ‘We do have to test a lot of waters. Many times we have to come out of our comfort zones, and it also applies to men. That risk is really important. Because when you take the risk of being assertive, when you take the risk of taking up a new challenge, when you take the risk of doing a new assignment, you may fail or you may do well, but at the end of the day, you have tried.’

Referring to a number of recent papal encyclicals that speak of fraternal cooperation and about ‘the Church being open to all’, Ms Pinto pointed out that the recent emphasis on synodality within the Church ‘invites men and women to walk together’.

Advancing the role of women in India, she said, ‘is definitely a big struggle’, but in ‘little ways, we are able to create ripples so that we are able to see the kind of change that we want to see within India.’

‘A land of diversities’

The extent of this ‘struggle’ became more apparent as Ms Pinto outlined some of the development challenges that India faces, along with some of the obstacles to changing attitudes and improving the material circumstances of women’s lives.

India at a glance

  • Population: 1.426 billion (at March 2023)
  • Percentage who are women: 48.4
  • Percentage aged 0–14 years: 25.6
  • Percentage aged 15–64 years: 67.49
  • Number of states and union territories: 34 (28 states and 8 union territories)
  • Number of subdistricts: 6057
  • Number of villages: about 40,000

She pointed out that the population of India has recently overtaken that of China, making it the most populated country in the world. By 2030, it is predicted that India, the world’s largest democracy, will have 600 million people under the age of 25, making it the youngest workforce in Asia.

‘India predominantly is a very agriculture-oriented country’, Ms Pinto said, with 63 per cent of the population living in rural areas and much of the nation’s income coming from the rural sector.

Adding to this complexity, she said, ‘we have many, many cultures, ethnicities, tribes, and … a lot of diversities in terms of race, as well as religion.’ In ‘a land of diversities,’ she said, ‘we also have diversified vulnerability.’

To illustrate the kinds of vulnerabilities that Caritas India routinely addresses in its work, she pointed to India’s rankings on a number of development indices.

India’s development rankings

A major contributor to India’s low rankings, she said, is the poverty that is prevalent throughout the country, particularly in rural areas. This is exacerbated by the varna (or caste) system and traditional cultural attitudes and practices that mean education is often not made a priority, particularly within rural households and communities that are economically vulnerable and that are looking for faster ways to boost their livelihoods than education can typically provide.

In a country where Hindus account for 81 per cent of the population, and with a government that came to power partly on a platform of reinforcing India’s Hindu identity, being among the nation’s religious minorities (which include Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) can further compound vulnerability.

Similarly, being of a lower varna or being a Dalit (previously referred to ‘outcastes’ or ‘untouchables’ because they were considered to be outside the varna system) significantly increases vulnerability, particularly for women, as does belonging to one of the almost 700 indigenous tribes that make up 8.6 per cent of the Indian population.

To show how women are particularly vulnerable within Indian society, Ms Pinto referred to both the Gender Vulnerability Index—a measure developed by aid organisation Plan India to assess the situation of women on a scale of 0–1 on four main criteria—and India’s Gender Gap Report ranking (see above), based on the differences between men and women when it comes to economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

India’s Gender Vulnerability Index scores

  • Poverty: 0.49
  • Safety: 0.69
  • Education: 0.49
  • Health and survival: 0.52

There are many reasons for the inequality shown in these measures, she said, including discrimination ‘within the household, within the society, within the workplace’. According to Ms Pinto, India is a very patriarchal society, and cultural factors—such as strong gender stereotypes around women’s traditional roles, the emphasis on women’s ‘obedience’ to husbands and fathers, and the ways women are often portrayed and ‘commodified’ in advertising and popular culture—only serve to deepen and accelerate the gender gap. ‘When male domination is strong, ... [you will find] a lot of discrimination when it comes to wages,’ she says.

Domestic violence also has a significant impact on the lives of many women. ‘Violence is very much there within the household’, she said, not only in poor rural settings, but in urban areas and among the rich classes as well. ‘But it’s all … very suppressed. It is not really brought up.’

Encouraging signs

While this picture might seem bleak, there are also some encouraging signs Ms Pinto says. ‘One of the good things that has happened is the recent passing of the bill [in the Indian parliament] wherein we have almost 33 per cent of the seats for women … something which has come after a very, very long time, and it has been a struggle.’

Similarly, she says, there is much to celebrate and be grateful for in the work that Caritas Australia has helped to support through its longstanding partnership with Caritas India.

One program she highlighted was based in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, predominantly rural regions at the heart of the country that are home to many indigenous tribes. Caritas places a strong emphasis on maintaining and protecting the distinctive cultures of these indigenous groups, who have often been overlooked, as well as advocating for their basic rights within the broader Indian polity, along with the rights of Dalits.

In a women-led initiative, Caritas has encouraged cooperation of these marginalised groups with people from mid-ranking and higher castes or varnas through the setting up of special committees at the level of local governance—a ‘breakthrough’ that has now been recognised by the Indian government.

‘There are many tribes which are still not recognised by the government. And those tribes are now being slowly brought in,’ Ms Pinto explained. ‘So again, this is something which had happened where the women had initiated this whole concept of local governance.’

Other breakthroughs have come about through various livelihood-focused initiatives.

‘Women usually get burdened a lot,’ Ms Pinto said. ‘They have to manage the family. They also have to manage the agriculture. But [developing entrepreneurial skills] is something that we would want them to learn because as women entrepreneurs, small entrepreneurs, they are able to take certain decisions in their hands when it comes to access and control of resources.’ Many of Caritas’ livelihood initiatives have given women in the villages greater control over decisions relating to their families, the education of their children and allocating resources.

By way of example, Ms Pinto told the inspiring story of Anandi, an HIV aids patient who had been ‘completely discarded’ by her community and ‘could not find a way to move ahead’. As part of Caritas’ Gram Nirman intervention (Gram means ‘village’, and Nirman means ‘development’), Anandi was given a sewing machine. ‘Because that’s what she had expressed, that she is very good with stitching.’

Anandi shared her skills with others who were also HIV infected, ‘and very soon we saw around 20 of the women coming together, and they’re taking contracts from schools as well as from colleges’. They have even received contracts to design uniforms and other clothing.

‘We are looking at women who are leading the way,’ Ms Pinto said, ‘whether it’s entrepreneurs or women leading as ambassadors for health and wellbeing, as well as in decision-making … When women can transmit their gifts, the world finds itself more united and more peaceful.’

Banner image: (L–R) Prof Virginia Bourke (Pro-Chancellor, ACU), Assoc Prof Krista Maglen (ACU Campus Dean, Melbourne), Babita Pinto (Head of Programs, Caritas India) and Michael McGirr (Mission Facilitator, Caritas Australia).