Nun and lawyer for the indigenous peoples in India: Avila Tharayil

Peace Award 2015: Shortlist

Life is twice as hard for the Adivasis. The Indian natives are both exploited and threatened by the Maoist Naxalites. This was the reason for Sister Avila Tharayil to become a lawyer. She supports the indigenous in court.

Gadchiroli is one of the poorest districts in the Indian state of Maharashtras and is situated about 800 kilometres east of Mumbai. The majority of the population here are Adivasis. They are exploited and persecuted by state institutions, companies and members of higher casts. They try and survive by hunting, collecting food and casual work.

Caught between the battle lines

They are threatened by the Naxalites, a Maoist movement founded in 1967 which originally aimed to protect the Adivasis from persecution and exploitation. However, extortion and kidnapping have meanwhile become a part of their daily life, as indeed have bloody attacks. In 2009, the state´s answer to the latter offence was one of the largest military operations in Indian history. This resulted in a spiral of violence and counter-violence which has already cost thousands of lives. The Adivasi are repeatedly caught between the battle lines of this conflict and are tortured or even murdered.

The sixty-six year old Catholic nun Avila Tharayil leads a non-violent but determined campaign to end the systematic exploitation of the Adivasis. For she is convinced that social justice is a prerequisite to lasting peace.

The problems behind poverty

Trained as a nurse and midwife in Germany, she originally comes from the south-west of India. She returned to India in the 70's and provided the destitute villagers with medical help in Maharashtras. She soon recognised the problems behind their poverty: Exploitation, suppression and a general ignorance among the population of their own rights. Parallel to her medical practice, she therefore successfully completed her Law studies, and in 1992, founded the local organisation "Lokmangal Sanstha" (in English: "For the Wellbeing of the People") as a means of protecting the defenceless Adivasis.

To date, she goes to court almost daily and represents disadvantaged and exploited people. She and her team inform the Adivasi of their legal rights, train legal assistants in the villages and strengthen the confidence of the women in particular. Domestic violence occurs on a daily basis under these difficult circumstances. Sister Avila has therefore founded a centre for women and children in need for which she successfully secures state funds on an annual basis.