Copyright: ZENIT / Deborah C Lubov

FEATURE: In Partnering with Religious Sisters, We Can Make Change and Tackle Global Challenges, Affirms British Ambassador to the Holy See Sally Axworthy

ZENIT Explores Rome Conference “Woman as Promoter of Hope” Organized on Occasion of International Women’s Day

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“In partnering with religious sisters, we can make change, have impact and address the global challenges we are working with.”
This was stressed by British Ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, at the conference titled “Donna come promotrice di speranza” (‘Woman as Promoter of Hope’), organized on the occasion of International Women’s Day by the President of The World Union of Catholic Women’s Organization (WUCWO) with the patronage of the British Embassy to the Holy See and the Peruvian Embassy to the Holy See on Tuesday, March 5, 2019 at the UISG Auditorium in the center of Rome.
Founded in 1910, WUCWO—whose aim “is to promote the presence, participation and co-responsibility of Catholic women in society and in the Church, so that they can fulfill their mission of evangelization and work for human development”—now includes 100 organizations now operating in five regions and in 50 countries. WUCWO unites Catholic women of the world at the international level through its consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council in New York and Geneva, the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, its participatory status in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and as an official partner at UNESCO (Paris). The organization defends human dignity and human rights through side events, statements and support for the Holy See Missions. It networks with other organizations and belongs to the international Forum of Catholic-inspired NGOS.
Along with Ambassador Axworthy, those giving interventions at today’s event were the Ambassador of Peru to the Holy See, María Elvira Velásquez Rivas-Plata; President of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organization (UMOFC-WUCWO), María Lía Zervino, Servidora; Former Under-Secretary of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Flaminia Giovannelli; and Policy and Advocacy Director of Caritas Internationalis, Martina Liebsch,
The event, beginning with a Hail Mary, welcomed each speakers’ intervention, questions and answers, and a conclusion, including a tribute to Saint Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Various participants stressed that women’s greater involvement is about service, not power, and “if it becomes or is about power,” then they are not interested.
In her remarks, the Peruvian Ambassador to the Holy See stressed: “We show every day, we are capable of making change, but still there is much more to be done.” There are still many issues which need to be taken up, including discrimination, indifference, violence, she said, underscoring: “This is where the voice of women adds up to the cry of the poor and the cry of Mother Earth.”
Ambassador María Elvira Velásquez Rivas-Plata recalled that last year the Pontifical Commission for Latin America dedicated a plenary session precisely to women as a pillar in the building of the Church and society.
She recalled that just yesterday the Pope addressing the Commission reminded: “Hope in Latin America has a female face,” as had been said by the Bishops of CELAM in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2017.
“Women, over and over again,” the Ambassador of Peru to the Holy See observed, “ignite this fire of faith.”
During their March 6-9, 2018, Plenary Assembly, the Pontifical Commission for Latin America recommended there be a Synod of Bishops in the Vatican on the theme “of the Woman in the Life and Mission of the Church.”
The Peruvian Ambassador to the Holy See thanked Pope Francis for his efforts and commitment to include and involving women, as did others giving their interventions, and some who participated in the Q & A.
President of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organization, María Lía Zervino, acknowledged that the “issue at stake is women,” but “I would like to thank the men who are here, and let’s give them a round of applause.”
She pointed out that 70 percent of solidarity exercises in the world are done by women, and how women truly do “give hope.” “Little by little,” she said, “there is a wind being produced, which can become a big tsunami, to foster culture, peace, equal opportunities between men and women and respect for life from conception.” Zervino stressed that this can work toward bringing about “a big cultural change.”
Sisters, Unparalleled Outreach and Effectiveness, Even Without Resources
Ambassador Sally Axworthy spoke of how women in policy and especially foreign policy, work with religious sisters toward achieving foreign policy objectives.
Two specific areas, she said they work together are: (1) to prevent sexual violence and (2) in combatting modern slavery.
With regard to preventing sexual violence in conflict, the British Embassy to the Holy See supported UISG workshops in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda in 2017 and 2018, which trained religious sisters in giving pastoral assistance to victims of sexual violence in conflict.
Turning to modern slavery, the Ambassador lamented that at any given point in 2016, according to statistics, an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriage. Women and girls, she shared, are disproportionately affected by forced labor, accounting for 99 percent of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58 percent in other sectors.
In 2018-2019, the British Government contributed 53,000 Euros to Talitha Kum, the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons, to raise awareness, including training courses to religious women leaders to end modern slavery in Cameroon and Burkino Faso, and to work toward prevention, through various initiatives, especially to research the trafficking routes in Sub Saharan Africa, including in Malawi and South Africa. Talitha Kum is represented in 77 countries, on the five continents.
Ambassador Axworthy also recognized that Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 being adopted, was also partially thanks to Pope Francis’ support. SDG 8.7’s target is: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labor in all its forms.”
Ambassador Axworthy, married and mother of four, also stressed how much religious sisters and women work to raise awareness. The Ambassador acknowledged how great a challenge it can be to have international outreach worldwide and help victims worldwide, “but sisters do,” the diplomat pointed out.
“Sisters have global outreach and have global networks,” she expressed, applauding that they “address needs where they see them” and “are responsible and flexible,” and “do not go off course.”
Trusted in Ways Others Never Will Be
Sisters also are not ‘resource constrained,’ she noted, acknowledging, that they do not pick up and leave when they do not have enough funds or resources. Praising this perseverance, Ambassador Axworthy underscored: “They continue to help as long as they see needs, which is often a very long time.”
Moreover, she added, sisters have the moral authority to change minds and attitudes. “They are trusted in ways aid agencies are not,” she said, noting “they can do, what we cannot do.”
“In partnering with religious sisters,” she said, “we can make change, have impact and address the global challenges we are working with.”
Former Under-Secretary of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Flaminia Giovannelli, admitted progress has been made for her as a woman to have had her role in the Vatican and that there are some more women in roles throughout the Vatican, but acknowledged: “Much still remains to be done.” She expressed her view that the relationship between men and women in missionary work tends to be very collaborative and fruitful, encouraging equality and partnership, and hence could be a good model eventually to follow in other environments.
Policy and Advocacy Director of Caritas Internationalis, Ms Martina Liebsch, discussed the importance of empowering women. Incentives for men to involve women, she observed, have yielded positive results, noting they therefore should be considered.
Liebsch gave an anecdote of how often we think of ‘fishermen’ strictly as men. Yet, she explained how in Costa Rica, there was a large group of ‘fisherwomen.’
“They were paid less and partially marginalized,” she lamented. Noting many were Catholic, the Caritas Director noted they spoke with the Church, and with its help, “they were able to get organized and create cooperatives.” This illustrates, she noted, how the Church was able to help women in that environment.
“Vulnerability,” she observed, “comes with resilience,” noting this could be said of women. “I thank all the strong women, for showing change is possible.”

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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