Bibi is illiterate, and she expected Nisa, her 9-year-old daughter to always be illiterate, too. In the Herat province of Afghanistan where they live, there is little reason to learn to read and write. There is always other work to be done.
But when an education team from Catholic Relief Services came to their village, Nisa’s father signed her up for school. “Why are you going to school?” Bibi asked her daughter. “Education is useless for a girl.”
Many Afghan parents do not want their girls traveling long distances to school. But because the school was built in the village, many girls could now get an education. And Nisa’s father insisted the family had a responsibility to educate their children.
Nisa wanted to go to school so much that she cried, pleading with her mother to allow it. She promised to help with household chores. Reluctantly, Bibi watched as her daughter went off to the classes.
The role of women can be limited by the traditions and expectations of society. This confinement is nothing new, but it is certainly something I learned growing up in Hong Kong. We were a generation or more removed from the Chinese practice of binding feet, but there were still many things that bound women, limiting our prospects.
Like Nisa, I was able to take advantage of the education offered by Catholics, in my case the Maryknoll sisters. The sisters who taught me had left their lives in the United States to come to China to educate young girls. When they were told to leave after the Communist takeover, they came to Hong Kong to continue their mission. I learned my school lessons from these sisters, but I also learned self-agency, the importance of dreams and confidence. I learned that I could stand with anyone.
Now, as president of Catholic Relief Services, I have the opportunity to close the circle, to be part of an organization that helps women around the world realize their potential just as the Maryknoll sisters helped me. We try to help women to free themselves from the many things that bind them, whether it is poverty or hunger or illiteracy, restricted access to health care or absence of clean water.
Such a mission comes directly from the principles of Catholic social teaching. At its core is integral human development. For decades, we have realized that economic development, while important, is not enough. We have worked to make sure that all parts of the person are nourished in a way that allows them to lead lives of fulfillment.
We know not to attack the traditions of a society in the name of helping women. Such a neocolonial approach would only create resentment. Nisa’s story shows that such resentment does not necessarily come from men, but from many women as well. What we must do is find ways to give women and girls the resources, training, support and space they need to grow. We understand that no society will flourish if the women within it are not healthy and happy.
Saving and Supporting
One of our programs, Savings and Internal Lending Communities, essentially creates savings clubs for those with little or no access to formal financial institutions, even to micro-lenders. Loans they could access sometimes come with interest rates of 12 percent per month. Any unforeseen circumstance can send a family into perpetual debt.
A SILC group comes together, and its members decide among themselves how much each will save every week. They pool that money and lend it out to individual members. The group decides interest rates and payment schedules. At the end of a cycle, usually about a year, they split up the proceeds. And often they begin again.
We lend our expertise to help groups get the SILC going—teaching them the basics of bookkeeping, if needed—and then soon back away and let the members take over. Last year, we celebrated one million members of C.R.S. SILC groups. And three-quarters of them were women.
SILC groups often serve several purposes. In Rwanda they might bring together families who were on different sides of the genocide two decades ago, getting to know one another in a way that otherwise might have been impossible.
One SILC group in Ethiopia was created for people affected by H.I.V. It gave them a place where they could talk about their problems, their fears, their concerns, where they could support each other, free from any stigmatization.
And it gave them a place to save money. One woman in the group—let’s call her Sara—whose husband had died, borrowed money to buy a steer, fattened it up and sold it at profit. Sara paid back the loan, bought another steer and did the same thing again.
When I saw her, Sara proudly displayed her third steer that would soon be sold. And she pointed to the front of her housing compound where, with her profits, she had opened a small beauty salon for her eldest child, a daughter, to operate. Sara had other children. Future profits would take care of them.
The SILC group was at once a health education club, a therapy group and a means of economic empowerment. Sara had found a way to do what mothers everywhere hope to do—take care of their children so they could grow up and become happy, fulfilled, productive members of their society. She had also contributed to the economy of her society by developing a non-agricultural livelihood, something so important for development. And she had gained independence and confidence that would affect her whole life and her family. Frequently the women also gain new respect from their husbands and in-laws. They are treated better and consulted more often in family decisions.
Health and Wellness
Gladys lives in the village of Nungu in northern Ghana. Not too long ago, this thin 21-year-old might have given birth in a small, hot, unsanitary room, her delivery in the hands of traditional birth attendants.
These traditional attendants were important people in their communities. Their role gave them status, but their knowledge of the medical issues around childbirth was limited. C.R.S. hoped to improve the birthing conditions for these women. Instead of trying to reduce the attendants’ status, we worked with health officials in Ghana to give the attendants training, so they became the link between pregnant women and the health care system. Their pre-existing respect added importance to the message of getting childbirth care. They are now entrusted with aiding the birth of their community’s babies in a new and healthier way. When Gladys gave birth, she had already had prenatal checkups at the local health center and she was instructed in infant care.
We know that the most effective and efficient way to affect the future of a community is to reach women like Nisa, Sara and Gladys. If we take care of women, they will take care of the children. If we ensure that women are healthy, we are taking a vital step toward ensuring the health of their children. The future for all will be brighter.
So throughout the world for the last decade, C.R.S. has formed mothers’ groups, care and support groups that provide a space where women can talk to other women, working through problems together, reinforcing knowledge, practices and understanding that experience has taught each of the participants in many different ways.
In Haiti where we formed these groups, the rate of malnutrition among children in the target communities has been reduced from 14 percent to 8 percent. Throughout these communities, people have improved their health and prevented needless deaths. One thing mothers’ groups and many of our other programs do is link the generations. Older women have a role in the lives of the younger ones, so the wisdom of the grandmothers is brought into the lives of new mothers. Messages about properly raising healthy children will be heard if they come in this fashion. Reach the women in any society, and the results will ripple through every part of every community for generations.
As the story of Gladys shows, nowhere is this more apparent than in the first 1,000 days of life, starting with how that life begins. We know that if births are properly spaced, both the mother and child will have better health and nutrition. To help in that process, we instruct people on natural family planning, using “cycle beads” to count the days to determine the time of ovulation. We found that this method is gaining acceptance in both Catholic and non-Catholic communities, as it is culturally sensitive, affordable and not dependent on an advanced health care infrastructure. We know that it works and that it encourages a dialogue between husbands and wives, which advances the stature of women.
From conception through those crucial 1,000 days after birth, our nutrition programs support mother and child. We advise healthy mothers to try to give their babies breast milk for the first six months and good food after that. If young children do not get this nutrition, they are in danger of having stunted growth and being short in stature, having a greater chance of learning difficulties and dropping out of school, and having all sorts of health difficulties that follow them into adulthood. Right now in Burundi, C.R.S. is looking at 50,000 mother-child units and analyzing the best nutrition for those first 1,000 days to reach the best health outcomes.
While some of our programs do not seem to be aimed at women, they still have a great impact on the lives of women and girls. Fetching water is often the work of young girls. Drill a well and, instead of spending hours walking to the nearest river and back, girls can go to school. In areas where security is difficult, sexual attacks often occur when women and girls leave their villages to gather firewood. Provide better fuel sources, and you protect these vulnerable women.
We also help victims of gender-based violence by supporting doctors and clinics that treat their traumas, both physical and psychological, as well as protection programs and SILC groups that provide spaces for victims to come together and heal. We do similar work with victims of sexual trafficking.
It is such a joy to be able to work with this agency that affects women around the world, as the Maryknoll sisters traveled halfway around the world and affected me. There is another lesson I learned from those Maryknoll sisters: that God is real. I saw the faith that had taken them so far from home. I saw the impact they had on so many lives. What better demonstration of the power and truth of the Holy Spirit?
I see that impact on people like Nisa in Afghanistan.
Every day, Nisa brought home a book from the “libraries in a box” that C.R.S. provides to the schools, and she read it to her brothers and sisters. But her mother still wasn’t happy about her studies. One day she brought home a new book. “Read it for us,” her father said. The book was called Respect Your Mothers. As Nisa was reading, her elder brother told their mother, “Education is very good. If my brother was not illiterate, he wouldn’t need to go to Iran to work as a laborer to make his money. If I was educated, I wouldn’t be forced to work gathering firewood. I would have the ability to do more.”
As she listened, Bibi had a change of heart.
“I used to think that education is not good, but now I know it is useful for everyone,” Bibi said, happy that her daughter would have opportunities that she did not.