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Year : 2011  |  Volume : 24  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 660

Making a Difference: An Interview with Sister Jeanne Devos Promoting Social Justice for the Underserved

Co-Editor, Education for Health

Date of Submission20-Apr-2011
Date of Web Publication29-Apr-2011

Correspondence Address:
M Glasser
Co-Editor, Education for Health

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

PMID: 21710429

How to cite this article:
Glasser M. Making a Difference: An Interview with Sister Jeanne Devos Promoting Social Justice for the Underserved. Educ Health 2011;24:660

How to cite this URL:
Glasser M. Making a Difference: An Interview with Sister Jeanne Devos Promoting Social Justice for the Underserved. Educ Health [serial online] 2011 [cited 2022 Jan 20];24:660. Available from:

Copyright Braambos Belgium

Sister Jeanne Devos, a Belgian, today continues her work in India, where among other accomplishments she founded the National Domestic Workers Movement. Sister Jeanne studied in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where she received a degree in orthopedagogy in 1962. Afterward, Sister Jeanne specialized in education for the handicapped – the deaf and blind – in Sint-Michielsgestel, the Netherlands. But her calling was for the sisterhood; Sister Jeanne left to go to India as a missionary sister, at the age of 28. This past year, Sister Jeanne Devos was a keynote speaker at the annual meeting of The Network: Towards Unity for Health, held in Kathmandu, Nepal. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 as well as receiving numerous recognitions including, in 2009, the Grootkruis in de Kroonorde (Grand Cross in the Order of the Crown) for distinguished service. Most recently, on March 30, 2011, she was awarded the Ghent University Amnesty International chair for her unique efforts in the fight against poverty and exploitation in India, for and with the poorest. This edited, abridged interview with Sister Jeanne Devos is based on my conversations with her by Skype in February 2011.

Michael Glasser

Co-Editor Education for Health

What prompted your decision and path to become a missionary sister?

I grew up in the village of Kortenaken, Belgium, in a family of nine children, two of whom died early. My mother would visit the sick in our village, taking them herbal medicines she had made. There was a lot of contact between my mother and the village, and also between my father and the village. My father was the first counselor of the village. My sister was involved in the village youth movement – so the whole village was like our home.

There was a connectedness to the village that was very strong. During the war, you had people with no income whatsoever, and big families. We were encouraged by our parents to share our food and other items at an equal level. We were not allowed to give old stuff and things we did not want anymore. We were always encouraged to give of the things we loved best. So, to treat others with respect and equality. This started early on during primary school years.

During high school, after the war, some Hungarian students came to Belgium to study. A lot of social work we were doing with the youth movement was with these Hungarian students.

I entered the sisterhood not so much for the sisterhood itself, but for a mission: the mission of liberation and ‘Good News for the Poor!’. Even today, my thing is to help the poor to a human existence.

What led you to India in 1963? Why India?

There was the possibility of going to Brazil. But India was a place to work with the ‘poorest of the poor’. To work towards liberation, rights and freedom.

I chose India mostly for its mysticism, the mystical approach of India, such as the yoga, the meditations, the vipassana, Buddhism - a lot of these transcendental things attracted me very, very strongly.

Coming from a Belgian context, I thought that the connectedness with the transcendental was only possible in silence. But in India, I saw that it is also possible in day-to-day life and struggle. I discovered the stream of mysticism in daily life, a connectedness in the marketplace, among the people, among the suffering of people and in sharing in their struggle to be liberated.

It’s an experience; you start recognizing that experience. It’s like praying in silence: you have a kind of tranquility, connectedness. In involvement you have a connectedness with the suffering of people. It goes beyond your own experience; it’s connected to the struggle of others and a transcendental connectedness. But that’s spirituality. Like in the vipassana, you experience the power of your mind.

India instilled passion. I was inspired by Gandhi, Nehru, Chandra Bose and others. The difference in India is living religion groups searching for the same truth – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists. And the Constitution of India is important in the sense that it’s a beautiful constitution. It has all the details about the rights of every person, the rights of every Indian and also for the poor. The Constitution is a beautiful document, but it is not always implemented.

What are you working on and how do you affect change?

The National Domestic Worker’s Movement began in the 1960s. It has moved into 23 states of India. It organizes domestic workers, emphasizing workers’ rights and providing a platform for the domestic worker community. Our objectives include dignity, rights and empowerment. There is a three-fold focus: sexual abuse; domestic abuse; bonded laborer rights. Our perspective has been to work together on all three issues, to make more than short-term change in one area.

We work with decision-making groups – the governments, members of parliament. We do lobbying work. Like for instance, there was a proposed bill that domestic workers were excluded from protection against sexual abuse in the workplace, because the home is not supposed to be a workplace. And we have been lobbying with all decision-making groups and the national advisory commission to change that and to get domestic workers included, because that’s extremely important for that group.

We are a group of people working together to get out of slavery. This is affecting the whole group, which is a group of 92 million people. So it’s a movement that’s making a difference.

Our strategy is to work in groups. We have thousands of groups of domestic workers in India, in 28 languages. They come together in a group and discuss their situation. And then they decide on how to work together to change that situation. Be it their sanitation, be it their rights, be it the right for food, the right for information.

We are very focused on the group of domestic workers, because that is the group working in slavery. And they get together on the community level – small groups or bigger groups, depending on the area. And they discuss and plan together what they are going to do. And then you have planning together, city-wise, state-wise, nation-wise. Lobbying, advocacy, locally, and follow-up for change. And, finally, we reach the ILO (International Labor Organization) in Geneva. That’s the most important thing: going to the United Nations for labor.

And what are your objectives?

The first one is dignity: dignity of work and dignity of the person. The second one is rights: labor right; right to information; right to food; right to education for the children. And the third one is empowerment: training; information; collective strength.

It’s a clear process of empowerment, of working together – advocacy, lobbying. We focus on concrete action, searching for support until things change. This is a journey that did not start yesterday; it’s 25 years ago that we started the movement. It is a process change – but, with clear participation and involvement of the target group.

What are barriers you have come across in public opinion, in terms of what you are doing now?

It’s one of our campaigns; a media campaign to change the public opinion. Because in India, like all over the world, people think that domestic work is still a solution for poverty. People come and they have nothing, so they are happy with some food and some clothes and a little pocket money. But they are workers and they have rights of workers. So, we work on that opinion, of human rights, of women and children’s rights. Employers still want to keep the people in their place, and there’s still the caste system. But, that’s a big topic.

One of the initiatives of the WHO is social determinants of health and trying to change the situation for people at a basic level. How does this relate to your efforts?

Decent work is very much connected to health. If you take the millennium goals: end poverty; gender equality; education for our children; maternal health - it’s all connected with poverty.

The health issues are a consequence, very often, of undignified work. Like people who have to work 16 to 18 hours a day, under stress, overtired, no time to care for themselves, no time to care for their children. So, decent work is a beginning, and is enlightening to help the atmosphere, and to help the surroundings and life for millions of people. The atmosphere of work, the hours of work are all related to food issues, health issues, healthcare. It is all very much connected to health.

What are the next steps: What needs to be done next?

The next step is clearly to recognize domestic work as dignified work. And have dignity of work on every level, be it street sweepers, mine workers, others. The decency of work and the decency of the workers, that’s extremely important, and it builds their own dignity, and their own health framework. And that we should run together on every level, for every person in the world today.

We have to bring in all agencies that are working on human rights and children’s rights, to start with – All government agencies that are working for the people. Decision-making groups, governments have to take this into consideration.

But, surely, also organizations like the United Nations, Amnesty International, the Network, anti-slavery organizations… Some of these are working already on this. And they should work together, so that every human being can live a decent life. This is not only for India, but for other countries, like Belgium and the US. When you look at domestic work, it’s for 183 countries in the ILO.

“It’s a whole journey, one after another, you grow one into another.”

Sister Jeanne Devos responding to how projects and movements interconnect.

Thank you and best wishes with your important work.


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