Ruth Mathen, a young Indian feminist devoted to equal opportunities. Photo: Jebasingh Samuvel/CCA

Ruth Mathen, a young Indian feminist devoted to equal opportunities. Photo: Jebasingh Samuvel/CCA

*By Claus Grue

At 20, Ruth Mathen has already come a long way on the path that God has chosen for her. She heeded his call at a YMCA camp six years ago and is now running a non-government organization (NGO) together with three college friends.

It began in 2015, when she attended an inauguration service of the Social Service Cell in her school in Bombay, India. She became instantly aware of the stark differences and inequalities in the Indian school system, where 75 percent of the children attend public schools, while the remaining 25 percent go to private schools with much better education quality.

”There is a huge gap in quality between public and private education. The current system promotes social inequality and I decided there and then to do something about it”, Ruth explains.

Since none of the organizations she approached were doing the kind of work she envisioned, she and her friends decided to set up their own NGO: The Youth United Foundation, so that they could work on their own terms.

Today, what started out as a small pilot project helping juvenile kids in remand homes, has grown into a network of volunteers influencing the education of 20,000 kids in the Bombay-Thane area.

A key to success has been liaising with the local commissioner in Thane, who after a 15-minute presentation by Ruth and her colleagues, was so impressed that he immediately wanted to implement their plan for better and more equal education. The plan includes better classroom management systems and creating fora for knowledge-sharing between teachers from public and private schools.

Since that breakthrough, working along with local governments to improve learning outcomes has become a success formula for the Youth United Foundation. Several chapters has been started elsewhere in the state of Maharashtra, where Bombay is located, and in the neighbouring state of Gujarad.

”The needs are endless and we have plenty of ideas to realize. We’ve been through periods of limbo, but we are determined to make a difference for Indian children. That objective can only be reached by igniting hope and self-confidence in those who are marginalized. They are God’s children too and we are all created equal”, Ruth points out.

Another injustice that she is determined to fight against is gender inequality, where the challenges also are huge. Ruth’s inspiration is her mother, who beat the odds, pursued a higher education and became a well-respected scientist.

”My mother empowered me and I want to empower other women to have faith in themselves. There are fantastic women in my community,” Ruth says.

Her determination to advance women’s rights and equal opportunities has not passed unnoticed in her own church, where men traditionally have been in charge.

”My religion should be empowering me, not subordinating me. We have beautiful traditions in my church and I will continue to provide service and work for the church. But it must stay relevant for new generations and a new thinking is urgently required. We must find new and creative ways for youth ministry and implement new and more palatable educational methods”, Ruth explains.

In one or two decades she envisions a stronger, more inclusive and more accommodating church, a church where women take equal part in the decision-making and where transparency reigns.

”A challenge for sure, but persistence is important. I have my will, so I’ve paved my way”, she concludes.

On the 7 April, Ruth Mathen shared her story as one of the speakers at the Asia Ecumenical Youth Assembly in Manado, Indonesia, where 350 fellow young Christians from across Asia were gathered to discuss today’s challenges. The word of her work is spreading.

“Asian Ecumenical Youth inspired and equipped to face challenges” (WCC news release 13 April 2018)

“Flowers of the church and agents of change gather in Indonesia” (WCC news release 10 April 2018)

*Claus Grue is communication consultant for the World Council of Churches