Image Source: Cultural Academy for Peace
By Connor Foley | @connorfoley_
One morning in the early 1980s, Beena Sebastian wakes to a knock at her front door. Through the screen, she can make out a woman’s face covered in bruises and tears, along with three young children. The family had just slept under a bridge overnight after the woman fled from her husband. He was trying to kill her. Beena took them in and marched over to the husband’s house to mitigate, but he was furious. Wielding a knife, he yelled at the top of his lungs, “you have taken my wife! I want her back! I want to kill her.” Beena slowly tried to calm him. She repeated the man’s name and stressed that she only wanted to talk to him. The man slowly lowered the knife to the ground and started weeping.
For most people, this feels like a movie scene; but for Beena Sebastian—sitting in her jam-packed office in Kochi, India—it’s just part of the job.
Beena is the founder and chairman of the Cultural Academy for Peace, an Indian NGO that helps vulnerable and ill-treated women and children.
The organisation blends in like any other building on a Kochi side street, fit with a warm and homey feeling that I’m sure is intended.
As soon as you enter, you are met by a large open space, filled with children drawing, dancing and everything in-between.
A gentle, smiling woman, and dressed in a brightly coloured lehenga (an Indian ankle-length skirt), Beena is like any other mother of three at first glance.
Yet she represents one of the most powerful voices for women’s rights in southern India.
“Women [in India] have been drowned by society because of the patriarchy, because of the economic system, because of the political system,” she said.
Born in 1959 and growing up in an ashram community, Beena has stood up for equality and fair treatment since she was a young child.
After school, she completed a masters degree in social science, and upon graduation got a job in teaching; but seeing the treatment of women in her community, she soon realised it wasn’t her true calling.
“Thirty to fourty years ago, the condition of women was so depressing, and there was no place for women, or girls especially, in society,” she said, stressing little has changed since then.
As a natural leader in her community, abused women started coming to Beena for help.
She opened up her home to them, even though she already had her own family to care for.
With a few families on her doorstep, the house quickly filled up, and she decided to hire a shelter facility with the help of the community and local volunteers.
On that day in 1984, the Cultural Academy for Peace was born.
The organisation has now aided hundreds of women and children through projects such as a rehabilitation and rescue centre, counselling centre and legal literacy programmes.
It also undertakes flood relief projects and leads International Women’s Day marches, where you will always find Beena front and centre.
Beena’s service to her community has not gone unnoticed.
She has won various awards such as the 1000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and the Spirit of Assisi National Award in 2008 for her “tireless work among the women victims of violence both in the public sphere and the private domain”.
But for Beena, the individual honours mean little except as an inspiration to others.
“I value the award from the target group with whom I am working,” she said.
“The smile on their face, the sparkling of their eyes, and the response they show when they see my award. I believe in that.”
When Beena talks about the people she has helped, it is never in terms of cases or work.
She even goes so far to call the organisation and the people in it her “extended family”. If the academy is indeed like a family home, Beena is its sweet and nurturing mother.
As happy as she may always seem, smiles and laughter can become a distant reality in Beena’s work at times.
Among the many obstacles she faces, death threats from angry husbands have become a common trend. One husband terrorised her for three years while his wife was under police protection, even threatening Beena’s daughters.
“Your daughter is going to college. I know what she’s studying, she won’t be coming home today,” one message said.
Yet even when talking of the man who threatened her family, Beena speaks calmly with an undeviating smile.
“I wanted to change him if possible because I knew that he needs help,” she said.
This captures the essence of Beena.
She is iron-fisted in her fight against injustice, but sweet and caring to all that cross her path.
A woman brave enough to confront a perpetrator holding her at knifepoint, but merciful enough to try to help them too.
“I strongly believe God has not created any man or woman as a perpetrator,” she said.
“His condition, his situation, his upbringing, have made him or her in that position.”
As the founder of the academy, her work goes beyond just helping those in need, and she is forced to spend a lot of time keeping the whole organisation—which so many rely on—afloat.
It is one of the few NGO’s in India that does not rely on religious or political backing. Although this makes funding harder to come by, it ensures the organisation can avoid outside influences.
“We are challenging the government because we don’t want their favouritism,” she said.
“There are so many agencies, government agencies and protocols that are there, but each individual, each case is different.”
The next step for Beena and the academy is their dream project; a community centre where their various projects can function as one, and women and children can come and live while they help the community in return.
Starry-eyed and hopeful, Beena said it would “create a place where we can pass on the message of peace and reconciliation to the new generation.”
Beena has rebelled against the patriarchy for more than 50 years but says most of the necessary progress has yet to come.
While economic conditions for Indian women have improved, instances of violence and sexual abuse against women have stayed constant.
Beena ends our conversation on an uncharacteristically serious note, urging the Indian population to make greater strides to improve the treatment of women and to recognise the multi-faceted nature of the problem.
“From my experience, the community is realising [money] is not the only solution.
The mindset of the whole community has to change. They need to be ready to accept women as human beings.”
The future plight of women in India remains to be seen, but for Beena Sebastian, the fight is only just beginning.