By Antonina Zielinska
Continuing the efforts of the United Nations and the Vatican to promote and celebrate the contributions of women to society, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the papal representative at the UN, hosted a special conference at the organization’s World Headquarters in Manhattan during Women’s History Month.
“St. John Paul II referred to this special brilliance of women in caring for the intrinsic dignity of everyone and for nurturing others’ gifts as the ‘feminine genius,’” the Vatican nuncio said during the March 18 conference. “Today we are here to ponder that feminine genius, to celebrate it, to thank God for it… I am convinced that a deeper recognition and a greater appreciation of this genius is key to fighting violence against women.”
The conference consisted of four panel speakers, women leaders who have made a mark upon society, and four female college students. The conference did not focus on women’s rights and struggles in the abstract. Instead, it highlighted how these specific women were able to overcome great challenges to achieve greatness.
The first panel speaker was the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Dr. Carolyn Woo. She pointed out how much life has changed for women in her Chinese family in just three generations. Her grandmother had her feet bound, a tradition that effectively cripples a women to make her feet appear smaller and more attractive. Her mother did not have her feet bound, but did not attend school. Woo’s mother did have a tutor, but she did not have exams and did not gain much self-confidence. Woo was able to not only attend a school opened by Catholic missionary sisters, but also became a professor at Notre Dame University.
Woo spoke of what she considered to be among the most important recent undertaking of CRS: SILC, or Savings and Internal Lending Communities.
She said that the recently popular micro-lending programs in developing countries often bring people, especially women, into greater poverty. Therefore, CRS has set up SILC groups to promote micro-savings. It establishes groups that ask members to contribute a small portion to the group’s savings. The members then decide whether to invest that money, lend it, or to provide emergency relief to a member. In this way all the money comes from the community and helps promote the community.
Magalie Dresse shared her story of how her company was able to implement creative solutions to chronicle poverty. When she first started working with Caribbean Craft Haiti, where she is an owner, she was able to make a deal with an international company to sell a large order of Haitian artisan crafts. She was convinced that this would be the big break her company needed. However, before she was even able to make it on a plane back to Haiti she got news of the massive earthquake that devastated her native land.
Determined not to lose the gains she made, she opened up her home to her artisan employees where they were able to fill the order. Her kitchen fed over a hundred employees who oftentimes had no homes to return to. Since then she has worked with not-for-profit companies to help employees learn to read, write and do basic math so that they can have more power over their finances.
Determined women can have real power, even in a male-dominated world, said former Haitian prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis. She recounted how just 10 years ago women activists were able to convince the nearly all-male Haitian parliament to change the laws to criminalize rape and change adultery laws to protect women.
Despite great gains toward gender equality, women throughout the world still have to struggle for acceptance of their whole selves, said Ana Cecilia Serrano Nuñez, a student from Mexico. Although others, including professors have told her otherwise, she said her mother is proof that women can be successful professionals and successful mothers at the same time.
“If we dignify the stage of motherhood, then we dignify family,” she said. “If we dignify family, then we dignify life.”
The shattering of the dignity of the family is something the final panelist, Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J., faces all too often during her work with migrants coming through the border in Texas. The executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, spoke of the recent crisis when thousands of migrant children came into the country, unaccompanied and undocumented. She said she visited the holding facility where dirty, scared children just wanted to be with families. She prayed with them, comforted them and organized the local community to bring some level of relief to these children.
During the question and answer section of the event, Sister Norma was asked what her advice is to young women who want to live a dignified and successful life. Her answer was simple: follow Jesus closely.
After the panel discussion, Sister Norma presented a gift for Pope Francis to Archbishop Auza, who said he would pass it along to the pontiff. The gift is a painting Sister Norma created of a migrant woman and her son.