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Interview: Cynthia Mathew, NGO Representative at the UN

01 October 2021

‘We are speaking to power; so imagine how challenging, difficult, and slow the progress is’

I’m a member of Patna Province of the Congregation of Jesus [CJ] in India. The CJ and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) are two sister congregations founded by Venerable Mother Mary Ward. The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary-Loreto Generalate is an NGO accredited at the UN (with ECOSOC).

At present, Janet Palafox IBVM and I are the representatives at the UN,
but we’re in our home countries at present because of Covid-19.

I joined in 1991 as a teenager with so much passion to be a missionary in North India.
I used to hear about the poor people living in North India with no education, health care, water, proper sanitation, etc. The caste system in this area is so rampant that it not only dictates one’s occupation, but dietary habits and interaction with members of other castes as well. I wanted to do something for these people, following Jesus who walked around the villages and among the poor, the marginalised, and outcast.

I come from the Kannur district of Kerala,
on the south-western coast of India. We’re five sisters and a brother. My parents and grandparents lived together, and we had a disciplined and very happy childhood. Our parents and grandparents were very strict regarding daily family prayers and going to church for mass. They were very kind and compassionate towards the poor and the needy, which nurtured my desire to be a missionary.

My first God experience was when I received my first holy communion.
God experience is beyond explanation or description, and takes many forms. Being loved by your family is an experience of God.

As children, we were told and motivated about the importance of the holy eucharist,
where we believe that Jesus comes to our hearts and dwells. Once we have this experience, we cannot but try to be a good person, trying to live out the values of Jesus. I’m trying to be the hands of Jesus, reaching out to all who are in need.

After becoming a Sister in 1996,
I worked among an indigenous people called the Paharia for a year, being with the children and women, and working for their education and empowerment. After a degree in social work, I was sent to Buxar, Bihar, where we have a social-service centre called Chirag, working among the Dalit community.

I used to visit imprisoned women in Buxar.
I listened to the heart-breaking stories of poor women in the jail — many of them arrested for petty cases, or crimes committed by their husbands. Men in the Central Jail often wait for trials longer than the sentence they would have received if they were found guilty.

So I was sent to Bangalore to do law,
and work in the high court of Patna, Bihar, and in the district courts of Patna and Buxar. As a lawyer, I’m able to help people denied their rights. Fighting for justice is a passion for me. We cannot have peace without justice.

A 13-year-old girl was raped by one of her relatives.
One day, leaving court, lawyers told me that there was a woman sitting with her 13-year-old daughter, and the girl’s newborn baby, who was only skin and bones. “If you can help her, please do something.” (They knew that they would not benefit monetarily from this case.) After a long struggle, the accused is in jail,and the victim was granted compensation as per the law.

This was first time in the history of Buxar Court that a lawyer managed to get compensation to a rape victim.
Nobody wants to get all the documents and signatures needed, and corruption also adds to the trouble. People were surprised that, without giving a penny to anyone as a bribe, I got compensation for the victim. I believe that when we work for justice and stand for truth, God helps us.

When my leadership was looking for someone to work at the UN in collaboration with IBVM sisters,
I was invited, and joined the office at New York in October 2017. When I finished my two years, I was asked to continue.

Our main focus at the UN is issues affecting women and girls especially,
like human trafficking, migration, education, health, and the environment.

There are over 5000 NGOs accredited at the UN.
They do not all have an office in New York. We who are in New York work together, because together we make civil society, and advocate at the UN on behalf of the people on the ground. We have various NGO committees and coalitions in which we are members, and advocate on various issues affecting the people and planet. To name a few, the Justice Coalition of Religious, the NGO Committee on Social Development, the NGO Committee on Migration, the NGO Committee on Financing for Development, the Working Group on Girls, the Committee of Religious NGOs at the United Nations, major groups, etc. There are many Catholic religious men and women working at the UN, and we have formed ourselves as the RUN group [Religious at the UN].

Advocacy at the UN isn’t an easy task.
We are speaking to power; so one can imagine how challenging, difficult, and slow the progress is. NGOs’ space is shrinking: the world leaders do not want to listen to the human-rights activists. But it’s encouraging when like-minded civil-society members advocate together for the rights of people and planet.

It takes years to get through,
but sometimes we see the UN taking up our issues. In past years, we’d advocated to take up the issue of homelessness during the Commission on Social Development. It was the first time this issue was taken up at the UN, and the world leaders made a resolution to tackle homelessness. When we see such results of our advocacy, it gives me hope, and I get energised to do more.

Working at the UN is an opportunity as well a responsibility.
I am accountable to my leadership and all those whom I represent at the UN. I’m happy that I got this international exposure, to learn many things, to live and interact with people from other cultures, languages, faiths, etc. I’m convinced that I’m a global citizen, and I belong to this global family.

It’s my experience and expertise as a lawyer,
working at the grass-roots level, that’s brought me to this platform, and I feel very grateful to God and my authorities who trusted me with this work.

We have only one life on this earth,
and therefore I always try to give my best in all that I do. I want to serve and help more and more people.

I feel sad more than angry
when I see the greed and corruption around us. I’m happiest when I’m able to do good to others: when I see the smile on the face of another because of my service. God’s created us at this time in history, in this place, with a purpose — and that is to serve others.

In the first wave of this pandemic,
we were able to reach out to many who were in need of food, especially to the migrants and slum-dwellers. The second wave was very stressful, affecting me emotionally and psychologically, as we lost a few of our community, friends, and colleagues. Life has become very confined to one’s own place, and normal life is disrupted. There’s no certainty about anything.

I’m working from Buxar via online meetings and webinars.
I miss meetings and interacting with people in person. We used to go to the villages, and people used to come to our centre. I miss all that now. There’s fear and anxiety in everyone.

There is deeper realisation of how fragile and transient our life is,
and therefore I need to live every moment for God and his people with gratitude and appreciation for life given to me.

Prayer is part of my life.
I talk to Jesus as a friend. Very often, my prayer is for peace: peace in everyone’s heart, peace in families, communities, and in the world.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with my mother.
She gave me birth and brought me into this world. We will sing and pray together.

Sister Cynthia Mathew CJ was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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