Amid push for new women’s roles, sisters highlight what they’re already doing

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent
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ROME – With the push for new leadership roles for women in the Catholic Church continuing to gain steam, the largest global umbrella group of women religious is highlighting what their members are already doing across a variety of fields.

On Wednesday, July 13, the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) launched the second installment of a campaign showcasing their involvement in positions of leadership and advocacy in various ministries across the world.

Titled New Leaders: Sisters Advocating Globally, the campaign spotlights the commitment of women religious in development projects and was published alongside an accompanying video illustrating these initiatives.

According to the UISG, the heart of the campaign’s message is, “We are your Sisters: We are committed to advocating for you and with you, sharing a journey of care for people and for the environment.”

It follows an initial phase of the campaign launched in June featuring women religious committed to giving a voice to the world’s most marginalized communities and allowing them to play a role in discussions concerning development issues.

“As world leaders increasingly become aware of the need for development solutions led by and tailored to the most vulnerable, sisters are at the forefront of a movement to reshape global conversations around the needs of our most neglected communities,” the UISG said.

The “Sisters Advocating Globally” campaign was launched in 2020 with the support of the Global Solidarity Fund (GSF).

According to the UISG, over the past two years the project has “built capacity for Sister-led networks and congregations to expand their focus on advocacy, shifting their approach in development from a primarily needs-based, responsive model to include a search for structural, systemic solutions that engage decision-makers at every level.”

As part of the campaign, UISG Executive Secretary Sister Patricia Murray participated in the World Economic Forum in Davos in May 2022, and a special Call to Action for development was launched last year by the leaders of the anti-human trafficking network Talitha Kum, which is run by women religious, with the support of key Vatican offices and various embassies to the Holy See and international NGOs.

The UISG also issued another Call to Action on Sustainable Development Goals 14 and 15 – life below water and life on land – that will be published at the end of this month by the UISG’s ecological initiative, Sowing Hope for the Planet, in collaboration with the UN-focused, Sister-led coalition UNANIMA International.

Last week the UISG and UNANIMA also co-hosted a sidebar event at the United Nations’ High-Level Political Forum, which explored the role that the UISG can have in connecting both regional and global leaders with women religious involved on the ground.

Speaking of her work, Sister Jean Quinn, executive director of UNANIMA International, said the coronavirus pandemic has “deepened and exacerbated multidimensional inequalities,” which limit the livelihoods and protection of needy communities, and which put human dignity at risk.

“Sisters on the frontlines, working with these marginalized communities, are often best equipped to inform solutions based on the lived experiences of the people they serve,” Quinn said, calling women religious “the true experts, and their voices must be included in places of power.”

The 2030 sustainable development agenda, she said, is an opportunity to both recognize and address “how the development and degradation of the planet impacts our environment, economies, and societies.”

“It also gives us an opportunity to cultivate relationships with one another, and to inspire a ‘culture of encounter’ in future generations of change-makers,” Quinn said, saying that on a personal level, the culture of encounter means acknowledging both past and present injustices and engaging people in finding solutions “in spite of whatever political, social, and economic differences may divide us.”

“Sisters and grassroots leaders do just that each day,” she said. “With service and a charism of care, they confront the painful realities of poverty, homelessness, socio-economic remnants of colonialism, and growing inequalities.”

Sister Sheila Kinsey, coordinator of the UISG’s “Sowing Hope for the Planet” ecological initiative, said they are committed to putting grassroots concerns in both the national and international spotlight in a spirit of “synodality and solidarity.”

Referring to the Call to Action her project will issue later this month, Kinsey said this is an opportunity to raise the voices of both women religious and the communities they serve, “ensuring their wisdom and experience are placed at the heart of a partnerships-based approach to ecological challenges.”

“We are pursuing a critical tipping point for change, to develop a harmonious and safe way of life for all people and for our common home,” she said.

Sister Anne Carbon, a missionary working with the Subaanen Indigenous communities in the southern Philippines, said that in her work, she has encountered “a culture that is pure, sustainable and deeply connected with nature.”

She condemned the habits of settlers for using chemicals on the land, as opposed to the Subaanen practice of using natural fertilizers, as well as governments for the deforestation of Indigenous territories, which she said has stripped the land of its biodiversity.

Women religious since the 1990s have advocated both for and with the Subaanen on mining issues, and they are also involved in health care, Carbon said, noting that as a nurse working with a local health center, she has personally vaccinated children from “dozens of villages.”

Carbon said she has also engaged with locals about the intrusiveness of mining companies. “By the time those companies came to visit with government representatives, we had gathered thousands of signatures to stop them,” she said.

“Roads, schools and electricity were promised. But people had seen the real consequences of mining, having visited areas where land was stripped bare, water was contaminated, rivers had dried up and communities suffered from cyanide poisoning,” she said.

For 15 years, the sisters have joined locals in protesting, picketing, lobbying, sending letters, sending petitions, and conducting hunger strikes, Carbon said, noting that mining on Subaanen land was outlawed for a while, but has recently been legalized again, “which is a challenge.”

Carbon said that in her experience as a missionary involved on the frontline of contentious debates, the greatest tools for advocacy are “education and networking.”

“Heeding the pope’s call to respond to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, we must unite to advocate for the future of our only planet,” she said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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