The Catholic Sisters Empowering Women Around the World
It’s no secret women have had a rough year. From the revelations of the #MeToo movement in the U.S. to the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria, we are being subjected to a consistent message that our needs, or even our rights, aren’t of primary importance.
But at the Dominican Sisters of Hope, a community of 140 Catholic sisters where I work, one conviction prevails: Women worldwide hold the keys to our future. And we’re not alone in this belief: Next week, hundreds of women will gather from around the world to explore the challenges and opportunities for empowering women and achieving gender equality at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Joining the conversation are Catholic sisters who live among the disenfranchised globally and share the common goal of improving the lives of women and girls.
“I see an awakening,” Dominican Sister of Peace Judy Morris of Kentucky tells me. “I see women energized, confident, and wanting to make a change in attitudes toward women, from demonstrations to women running for office. Years of us being ignored or intimidated are beginning to fade.”
In recognition of International Women’s Day, I asked Sister Judy and other Dominican Sisters who attended last year’s meeting to discuss the work they have been doing to help women and girls in their home countries. Here’s what I learned.
Combating human trafficking
Morris spent seven years as a justice promoter in Columbus, Ohio, creating a human trafficking committee to focus attention on a growing problem facing girls and women there and across the state.
She led the installation of billboards throughout the city to help the public learn how to spot human trafficking and report problems to authorities.
Her committee teams visit hotels, hair salons, tattoo parlors, and other locations where victims of human trafficking are often taken. There, they educate managers on how to recognize the signs of human trafficking and contact the proper authorities.
“Human trafficking is one of the most critical issues for women and girls,” Morris says.
In 2014, committee members met with lawmakers, trafficking survivors and experts, law enforcement officers, and advocates to push for legislation to toughen up the state’s trafficking laws. They also launched a campaign to support trafficking legislation in Congress.
And although she is now retired from the committee, Morris continues to advocate on behalf of trafficked victims. She’s been focusing recently on sporting events, where trafficking is on the rise. She met, for example, with the staff of hotels in Columbus during the recent Arnold Sports Festival to alert the staff and help them identify the signs of trafficking. She did the same in Louisville, Kentucky, during the Kentucky Derby, working in conjunction with Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution and distributing bars of soap in hotel rooms with the numbers of human trafficking hotlines on the wrappers.
Independence as an escape from violence
In East Timor, Sister Elsie Bagaypo works with domestic abuse survivors. The first step to safety, she says, is independence. She and her colleagues teach the women agricultural skills, about growing and harvesting crops they then sell to local schools, as a way to generate their own income separate from their abusive partners.
Bagaypo opens her home to women from the center as well as others throughout the community, inviting them to reach out to her at any time. “In the middle of the night, neighbors come to me asking to borrow my car,” says Bagaypo, of the Dominican Sisters of the Rosary. “They’ll say, ‘My mom was beaten over the top of the head with a chair, and she needs to go to the hospital.’ When I go to meet the women, they act like it is not a big deal that they got hit.”
In teaching independence, she teaches the women that they have inherent value and dignity, and that they can make a life for themselves free of violence.
Making girls’ education a priority
As a teacher and a leader, Sister Juliana Idoko of Gusau, Nigeria, prioritizes the education of girls, which she sees as the key to empowering women not just in her country, but everywhere.
Growing up in rural Nigeria, she witnessed a cultural cycle where women were not allowed to go to school but married young and became responsible for husbands and children when they were still children themselves.
“Many girls are not given priority when it comes to education,” says Idoko, of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena. “If the family has low income—if they have three children, for instance, and they can sponsor only one in school—they will sponsor the boy and allow the girls to go and get married.”
Idoko works with families, emphasizing the importance of girls’ education while trying to ensure they understand family barriers that might prevent girls from going to school. In group sessions involving women and mothers, she makes female power and dignity a strong focus. She teaches sisters-in-training to encourage their female students to stay in school. And she reaches out to principals in the local community on practical matters, such as the lack of separate toilets in co-ed schools.
“We must encourage girls to not only study well, but to see themselves as being an embodiment of power,” she says.
Making health care accessible
Living among the Tsotsil-speaking Mayan people in Chiapas, Mexico, Sister Helena Im sees a disturbing trend: women allowing their illnesses to worsen because they don’t have enough resources to see a doctor. Her congregation arranges for doctors and dentists to visit the community once a year, but that presents its own challenge: a lack of sanitary, equipped places available where medical professionals can treat members of the community.
Her continued advocacy for sustainable primary health care for Chiapas is bearing fruit. A team of 10 “health promoters” is now training under a Mexican doctor to bring a combination of clinical skills and Mayan herbal remedies to the community year-round.
“To allot every weekend to courses and field work has not been easy for our health promoters, but they took their commitment seriously,” says Im, a Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose. “When a health promoter shared that she didn’t have enough to pay for transportation to come to class, another promoter offered to walk with her. They walked three hours together to class, not once, but many times.”
For her, the next step is creating space called casas de salud (houses of health), where these professionals can offer basic but urgent medical care. Visiting medical professionals can also use these facilities. She’s helping to outline a campaign to raise funds to start the building.
The idea is to construct the casas de salud using natural resources and on a model that can be emulated without relying on aid. Meant to “serve as an inspiration for our people to reclaim their sustainable practices,” each will be equipped with herbal medicines as well as basic pharmaceutical medications.
“Where poverty has made adequate health care inaccessible, despite challenges such as lack of basic education and resources, we dare to dream about instituting health care facilities because we carry the pain of the suffering of our people,” Im says.
Intercultural understanding, not Westernization
Sister Margaret Hillary, of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, Michigan, lives with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. For the past nine years, she has served as a pastoral counselor and youth minister in a community that was originally Native and is now home to generations of mixed-race people.
White and Native children attended school together, became friends, grew into adulthood together and married across cultures. Now Hillary says many of these mixed families struggle with identity and how to incorporate both Christianity and their traditional spirituality into their lives in meaningful ways.
While many have attended Western, Christian schools, there is a constant aim to recapture the culture and heritage they believe they lost when their parents or even grandparents were forced into boarding schools in the 1900s.
She listens deeply, offering the kind of counseling that allows those facing this confliction to feel at peace with all aspects of who they are. She encourages them to embrace and take pride in their complexities.
Some people, Hillary says, “want to return to traditional ways. Some families are split between traditional and Western practices. When I’ve told them it’s OK to be both, they’ve felt really good. That’s the key to surviving: having a sense of who they are and their identity.”