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Nobel Prize nomination for a life’s work

Belgian-born nun Jeanne Devos has spent more than 40 years working to help the poor in India.



Jeanne Devos is inspired by the solidarity among India’s poor

Her efforts have been rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize 2005 nomination, but Devos quickly points out the honour is not only for her, but for those she works with.

“It is not the work of one; it is the work of many. Maybe I started the movement, but the movement is also the work of regional co-ordinators,” she says.

Devos is referring to the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, which campaigns for the rights of women and child slaves in India.

She praises the initiative of Swiss politician Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, who recently nominated Devos and 999 other women for this year’s Nobel award to gain recognition for the peace efforts of women across the globe.

Just 12 women have won the Nobel Peace Prize since it was first awarded in 1901; something that Devos says is “a sign of international discrimination against women”.

“I think women are very strong peacemakers across the world. The community starts with women. And women are closer to life, I think all men recognise that,” she says, explaining that women are the primary caregivers.

Devos also says the Nobel nomination was recognition she wanted, stressing that it means her work has a value and is supported.

“I was so happy when I saw the nomination. It is recognition of the work of the movement,” she says, adding that it gets domestic workers “out of the forgotten corner of existence”.

A life’s calling

Born in 1935 in Kortenaken, Devos developed in her youth a feeling for disadvantaged people and she chose to become a missionary to “give to foreign people the best I could”.



India’s poorest often become domestic workers, officially classed as slaves

A strong desire to work in India developed at the age of 14 or 15, a desire influenced by the nation’s large population, the difference in culture and the land’s mysticism; its “deeper understanding”.

However, Devos also says she was following her “calling”.

The decision to work in India was one her family supported, despite the fact they tried to convince her to perform such work at home in Belgium.

She was not to be swayed however and departed for India in 1963. She misses her family, primarily at sad and happy times, but has only returned on occasion.

Devos departed for India with the idea to convert the locals, a thought that at that time was a euphemism for trying to help. However, Devos was one of the first converts.

*sidebar1*“All that I valued in Christian values I saw in Hindu families and in the poor. It gave me a feeling of western superiority, the feeling that we think we know best. But instead of me influencing them, they influenced me,” she says.

She cited India’s “tremendous art of community living” and solidarity among the nation’s poorest — that “feeling of giving oneself for others”.

And pointing to the “perseverance, solidarity, strength and energy” the poor have to start every day with a smile, Devos says: “I am not ready for that life. I learn from them also”.

Speaking by telephone from Mumbai, Devos says she witnessed a demonstration of 1,000 women protesting for the rights of domestic workers in driving rain on Wednesday.

“When you see that group drenched with water and with enthusiasm singing and chanting solidarity, it gives a joy indescribable.”

Students and domestic slavery

Devos started working in India with the hearing impaired, but soon became involved in the student movement to build better awareness for the underprivileged.

These movements have become a strong voice across the country and one of their spin-off groups became one of the biggest NGOs in India. Devos is still the Gram Vikas Foundation president.



Devos has worked in India for more than 40 years

Towards the end of the 1970s, Devos became more involved with women’s issues and started organi