After Sister Lucy Kurien witnessed a woman’s murder, she saved thousands of others
As India marks the first anniversary of the Delhi gang rape that rocked the nation, YES! talks with Sister Lucy Kurien — whose life was changed forever when she saw a young woman set on fire.
If you sit in the slums on the outskirts of Pune in the evening, you will hear shouting and yelling from all sorts of places, Sister Lucy Kurien says of her home in South India. Much of the fighting is fueled by alcohol, and sometimes it explodes into bruises, scars, and broken bones. "The women don’t even retaliate."
It's a sound the Catholic nun from Kerala has been listening to since 1997, when she founded Maher, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence outside of Pune. In the nearly 17 years that she has been welcoming battered women and children—as well as women at risk for street violence and trafficking—Sr. Lucy has known thousands of women whose families were shattered by violence and poverty.
Moved by the destitution she first witnessed as a child in India's cities and inspired by Mother Teresa's side-by-side work with the poor in Kolkata, Sr. Lucy spent much of her youth wondering what she could do to end inequality and the violence she saw resulting from it.
Then one night, the young nun witnessed a gruesome murder that shifted the course of her life: She held a young, pregnant woman who had been doused with kerosene and lit on fire—by her husband. Just one day before, the same terrorized woman had begged Sr. Lucy for help, but there was nowhere for her to sleep in the convent.
The woman died, but Sr. Lucy's conviction that she was supposed to do something for the women of her country sprang to life that night.
According to the World Health Organisation, globally, 30 percent of women in relationships have experienced violence from an intimate partner. That's nearly one in three. And 38 percent of murders of women worldwide are committed by those partners.
"Risk factors" for becoming a perpetrator include "low education, exposure to child maltreatment or witnessing violence in the family, harmful use of alcohol, attitudes accepting of violence, and gender inequality"—all systemic issues in India and, by degrees, most of the rest of the world.
Sr. Lucy, who sat down with YES! while visiting Seattle to meet with domestic violence service providers battling similar troubles, founded Maher as a refuge for women whose poverty prevents them from being able to leave abusive homes on their own.
In the short-term, Maher provides immediate shelter, interventions, and even reconciliation. But in the long-term, the community focuses on the slow, meticulous work of transformation: upending India's systemic violence, exploitation, and segregation—of men and women, but also of rich and poor.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the the infamous murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in India (most widely referred to as the Delhi "gang rape," though it was ultimately a brutal murder with undertones of lynching).
The tragedy was commemorated throughout the country this week, but many Indians remain outraged and frustrated that so little progress has been made in addressing the root causes of violence against women.
Sr. Lucy understands this frustration.
Many years ago, in the days right after she witnessed the immolation, she had no idea how to channel her rage.
"I have nothing," she told her mentor, a priest. "What will I do?"
"You have love in your heart," he told her.
"But with just love, what will I do?"
Here's what she did.
Christa Hillstrom: You were born in a rural village in Kerala, where there is relatively less gender inequality than the rest of India. You moved to Mumbai at a young age. What struck you about the city, compared to where you grew up?
Sr. Lucy Kurien: We had no school where I was born at that time, so we moved to Mumbai when I was 12.
It was the first time I saw the slums.
In the village where I was coming from everybody had their home, their farm. It was a self-sufficient kind of village. I don’t think there was anyone going hungry. There was a lot of poverty in other ways, but not for food and shelter.
But then when I moved into the city, I saw all the people—the first thing was that the women were sitting on the roadside for a toilet. That shocked me. I said, "Oh my God, why are the people ..."
In those days there was no TV or anything to help me know anything about another state of India. I had never even heard about a slum.
I remember I spent a sleepless night, saying, "Why, why, why—why are they so poor? I can’t understand." Something started working within me.
Hillstrom: Over the years, did you start to find answers to that question?
Sr. Lucy: I would ask my friends, teachers, and the nuns with whom I was living. They explained to me, those people are very poor and they migrated from different parts of the country. Some things they explained.
But I said, "Why is nobody doing anything for them?"
And they said, "How much can we do, compared to the population? What do you think that we can do?"
Hillstrom: And you were around 13? It must have been a very impressionable time.
Sr. Lucy: Yes. I was brought up in a Catholic family, so when I was 19 I decided that I will become a nun.
Of course, I wanted to join Mother Teresa’s order—I even filled out my form. But my parents at that time did not allow me. They said, "It will be too strong for you."
So I joined the Holy Cross order, and afterward I understood that our sisters did not have that [Mother Teresa] type of work—they were doing mostly teaching and nursing. They also had some kind of orphanage, but not the way I was dreaming.
Hillstrom: When you were dreaming about it, what did you imagine?
Sister Lucy: I was thinking that I will be working directly with them, the poor. I will be staying with those people. At Holy Cross, I was staying with my sisters and the life was much better [than the surrounding community]. My life was not touching with the lives of the poor. We were doing work for them—not with them. I wanted my life to be with them.
Hillstrom: You felt called to be closer.
Sr. Lucy: Yes.
Hillstrom: What happened?
Sr. Lucy: I continued working there for nine years.
While I was working at the convent, a woman came to me asking for shelter. She told me that her husband was in love with another woman, and this man, she told me that he was an alcoholic. She said, "If I stay with him he will beat me. I need to go out from the house."
But where to send her was a big problem, because there in the convent we would never take a layperson. I said to myself, "What should I do to help this woman?" I knew it was a genuine story because she was weeping her eyes out. I felt bad to send her away, but I had no choice.
It so happened that that very night she and her husband must have had some fight. He poured kerosene on her and set her on fire.
This woman was seven months pregnant.
I heard the shouting because our convent was very close to the slum. So I went there, like any other onlooker, to see what was happening.
She came running. She told me, "Save me! Save me!"
Hillstrom: She came running to you?
Sr. Lucy: Yeah... Yeah. She was standing there at the same spot where she was burned. That’s when I realized, "Oh my God it’s the same woman."
With the help of the people of the slum, I tried to shift her to the hospital. It was so difficult for us to find anything, because we had no car—nobody had anything.
When I shifted her to the hospital, the doctor told me that she was already 90 percent burned because her sari had caught fire immediately. She was fully burned. And... I asked the doctor if anything could be done to save the baby ... But what he found was also a fully burned baby.
I was holding this… the fetus, they had given to me. I was wondering what I should do. I was completely devastated.
I was so angry with myself from that time onward because what I felt was that this woman who came to me—I did not help her in time. That was the guilt feeling that I was going through. So much so that as the days went by I became very angry person. All this frustration was leading into anger.
Hillstrom: What direction did your anger take?
Sr. Lucy: For no reason, I was getting angry with people who were living with me. I was never like that—never. My friends advised me, "Lucy, you should go for some counseling because you are becoming something you’re not."
I went for help to one of the priests, and he told me, "Instead of sitting down here and getting frustrated, go out and do something."
I said, "Go out and do what? I have no education, I have no money—what will I do?"
Father was very clever. He said, "But you have love in your heart. Hold on—God will show you the way."
Hillstrom: How did that happen?
Sr. Lucy: I feel like the divine worked with me and walked with me. This priest went to Germany to teach the Bhagavad Gita. An Austrian man met him and told him, "I would like to help a women’s project in India." Immediately Father thought of me because I had written several letters to him.
Hillstrom: What did your letters say?
Sr. Lucy: I had always written: "When I see a woman on the street, I am restless. When I stand next to a child who is begging, I am very unhappy." Things like that. I used to write to him what my feeling was when I would see women being harassed.
These women used to tell me their stories. I had never heard such stories because I was coming from a very secure family where I had seen my father and mother living very happily. So I couldn’t imagine that some things can exist in a family where there is love.
Then the women started telling me things: "I had no food," "He was drunk." One of the women told me that he put her hand in the rice pot where she was cooking. I couldn’t imagine a man could do that. And she said, "My children and I starved last night."
These stories were disturbing me. I used to come to the back of the convent and share what the women had told me. I said, "How can human beings go through this?"
Hillstrom: So this is what you wrote to your friend, the priest.
Sr. Lucy: Yes, and he showed the letters to the man from Austria, who came to India and saw that I really wanted to do something for the women. He saw that if there was money, I would do a good job.
He told me, before leaving, "Lucy, go ahead and start the work—I'll help you." It was my first experience with a European person.
I bought a small piece of land in Pune. Soon after buying the land, I noticed that whenever I spoke to people—wherever I was working—they had so much trust. They started giving me money—20 rupees or 50 rupees, whatever they could share. That’s the time I realized, "Oh my God, they are trusting me with their money—which means they trust me."
That helped me.
Hillstrom: Just regular people?
Sr. Lucy: Yeah, just regular people. Ordinary people from the village. Even the women who were suffering.
In 1997, we were able to open our first home. From then on, we had more than 2,400 cases coming to us.
Hillstrom: What happens when they come to you?
Sr. Lucy: Any woman who has no home can walk into our house. Sometimes women are brought by the police. Sometimes we pick them up. Suppose we see a woman lying under a tree or on the street. We go and talk to them to see why they are there.
Often they are mentally disturbed; sometimes it’s a small misunderstanding between them and their husbands, and so we counsel the husband and the women and see if they can come back together.
If that fails, then we send the women for some training, finding them jobs. Most of these women are illiterate. If women are educated and have a job, they don’t need a home like Maher. It’s because they have no work and nowhere to go that they need to come here.
Hillstrom: After hearing these thousands of stories, what issues have emerged as the biggest problems for women and families in India?
Sr. Lucy: Very often, [abuse happens] because women are not educated. In India, among the poorer class, the belief system is that educating a girl is like watering the plants in another person’s garden. She gets married and goes away. So what happens is they are pushed toward getting married, producing children, and looking out of the kitchen.
The women are treated badly because it’s a male-dominated society—the understanding, even in the women, is "I am lower; I am only worthy of looking after his children."
Hillstrom: Boys and men are clearly also an important part of the Maher community, and with your family counseling you are also reaching out to men in the wider community. Many of them are the perpetrators. You also try to understand and address what's influencing them.
I think of the four men who were sentenced to death this fall for raping and killing that woman in Delhi. Those men, who were once boys, also came from very difficult, impoverished backgrounds. They were shaped and raised by the same culture you're talking about. How do you feel about their fate?
Sr. Lucy: It’s not that Maher is against men or anything like that. What we are against is the system. I don’t like when men treat the women as a thing to control. To be used. To be raped. This system is handed down, over generations.
Killing those four men is not going to give an answer to the problem. I’m not a person for killing. I would say, put them in a place and give them a lot of counseling, prayer sessions. Make them realize their mistakes. By hanging those four men—that’s not going to be an answer. Everything has to change.
Hillstrom: You're quite an unconventional thinker. Not everyone is able to see things the way you did when you first came to Mumbai, and the way you still do today. Where do you think that came from?
Sr. Lucy: When I was little, my mother brought outcasts to our table. Once I remember a woman came to our house who was of a very low caste. My mother told me, "Go to the kitchen, take a handful of rice, and give it to that beggar woman."
So I went inside and I took the thing and I threw it to her, like that, and my mother noticed immediately. I was in a playing mode. My mother told me, "Come here," and she turned to the beggar woman and said, "Please wait."
And she said sorry to her. She made me go a second time to the kitchen, take more rice, and she said, "Can you do that with more respect?"
That made me think. Why did my mother make me do that?
Though my mother did not fight or make noise about what she was doing, these little things were there.
She was from a very upper-caste family. When she married my father and came [to his village]—he is a really simple man and he lived along with the lower-caste people—I have a feeling she must have seen the pain. They were not educated, and she was educated. They used to call her the Indira Gandhi of the village.
Many of those women used to come running to my mother. She sheltered them.
For more information on the Maher Ashram, click here.
• Christa Hillstrom wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Christa is web managing editor of YES!