ROME – For this year’s International Women’s Day, the global Catholic charity organization Caritas Internationalis has published a new booklet exploring both the spiritual foundation of women’s leadership and giving voice to female protagonists around the world.

In a forward for the booklet, titled “Equality, Encounter and Renewal” and which was published March 7, Sister Alessandra Smerilli, secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, lamented the historic marginalization of women around the world.

“Despite the equal dignity of every human person, historically over the centuries, in so many aspects of life, women have not been allowed access to the same opportunities that men have had,” she said.

Apart from facing numerous barriers in opportunity, women and girls, she said, “have also disproportionately been innocent victims of violations against human dignity.”

“The systematic social and cultural exclusion of women” is not a thing of the past, but can also be seen “when looking at the face of leadership in the world today,” Smerilli said, noting that women “still do not enjoy balanced representation in leadership and decision-making in many governments and organizations,” despite making up half of the world’s population.

She lauded the booklet for addressing the question of women’s leadership and laying out a foundation for it on both a scriptural level, and on the basis of Catholic social teaching.

Smerilli said the booklet was an invitation to facilitate “opportunities of listening and dialogue, to enter into moments of encounter, where the situations of women can be heard,” leading to both a deeper understanding of the problems and gaps, and how to respond.

“Every human person is fundamentally connected to the other. None can achieve full human development if others are lacking basic opportunities,” she said, saying, “the holistic development of the human person necessarily includes the social, economic, political, cultural, personal and spiritual development of women and girls.”

Promoting women’s dignity is everyone’s responsibility, she said, and voiced gratitude to Caritas for shedding light on the issue.

Caritas, a conglomerate of 162 different Catholic relief and development agencies around the world, pledges in the booklet to begin taking further steps for women’s inclusion and empowerment from within.

Speaking at a March 7 press conference for the booklet’s publication, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis Alistair Dutton said the booklet has been in the works for the past three to four years, and is the fruit of an internal committee exploring what the Church teaches about women’s leadership, and what obstacles they face.

The discussion, he said, is about affording women “spaces that belong to them. It’s recognizing the spaces that are theirs by right and to cede space so they can take their rightful places in structures,” he said.

It’s not about “giving women” space, “but allowing women” to have the space that is rightfully theirs, he said.

Roughly 50 pages, the booklet is divided into five sections that explore the spirituality of women’s leadership and participation, what is meant by women’s leadership and why it’s important, and a reflection on the “signs of the times” as well as suggestions for how Caritas itself can do better.

It also contains a collection of testimonies from women playing leadership roles around the world, from Caritas branches in Mauritius, Georgia, Fiji, Chile, Syria, Tunisia, South Africa, Uganda, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Tonga, Iraq, Mexico, North America, and Ukraine, among other places.

From January-April 2022, Caritas Internationalis conducted two surveys on the status and experiences of women’s leadership, equality and participation in the confederation, and in October 2022 they hosted a global conference with UNESCO on “The Full Face of Humanity: Women in leadership for a just society.”

During Thursday’s press conference, several speakers representing various Caritas branches around the world said an internal crunching of the numbers revealed that while women generally outnumbered men inside the organization, men disproportionately held positions of leadership and governance.

Some of this, according to the speakers, is because the presidents and secretaries of Caritas branches are often bishops or priests, but they said more space could be created for women on governing boards and committees.

Patricia Adèle Félicité, Secretary General, Caritas Ile Maurice, recommended that to bridge the gap, a body of advisors be established aimed at “increasing cooperation between men and women in the organization at the local level.”

Practices and policies are needed “that ensure adequate participation of women in governance,” she said, stressing the need “to ensure inclusion of equality.”

Similarly, Sister Regina Ignatia Aflah, who comes from Ghana, said the presence of women in leadership has a biblical foundation, as seen in the scriptural books dedicated to Ester and Ruth, as well as other prominent women such as Deborah and the Virgin Mary.

Sister Ruperta Silva, a Carmelite missionary from Mexico who serves as secretary of Afro-Mexican Pastoral section of Caritas Mexico, stressed the need to not only empower women generally, but to give special attention to women who are marginalized further for other reasons, such as their racial or ethnic background.

She stressed the need specifically to “strengthen role of Black women” in her area, saying, “Black women are marginalized as women, as Black people, and as the fruit of a past legacy.”

Black women “are excluded from all spaces of integral growth, they live all situations that are very complicated, and they cannot find answers to their needs,” she said, noting that roughly 92 percent of the Black population on the continent lives in poverty.

“We are in the lowest part of society in our country,” she said, and stressed the need for better education to “broaden the horizons” of women so they have better options.

Referring to the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which will closed with a month-long gathering this October, Silva said Latin America has “a woman’s face, but in the end it’s always a man that makes the final decision.”

“We shouldn’t be slaves of a radical patriarchate,” she said, saying the discussion about women’s inclusion in leadership and governance is timely, and marks “a new moment” in the church.

“We want more space for women in decision-making processes,” she said, and stressed the need for all voices to be heard, regardless of where their country or ethnicity.

Speaking to Crux, Silva addressed perceptions that discussion about women’s leadership in the synod has been overly dominated by a western perspective, saying it has been a concern at some level, but that all continents are “speaking about inclusion” from different perspectives.

Regarding the women’s diaconate, a proposal currently being discussed by the synod and studied by Pope Francis, Silva said this is one issue on which, even for women, “there is still no consensus.”

“It is a situation in which the Church still needs to continue assimilating,” she said, saying she works in local communities where women commonly lead liturgical celebrations.

“We cannot generalize and create a norm for everyone, because the reality of our Church is very different in each place,” she said, saying that on a personal level, she believes that the Church “in those places, when this is necessary, open space” for women deacons.

In the Diocese of Puerto Escondido where she lives, “almost all of the religious sisters that work in the diocese…have this mission, let’s say, to preach, to celebrate. It’s a different reality.”

“Maybe in other places this is not necessary, but in the region where I live, the people are very religious, and they ask for this kind of celebration,” she said, saying that as women religious, they visit people’s homes and chapels in rural communities, “and there we lead celebrations.”

“So, I think, where this would be necessary, that the Church opens the door. Because the reality is very different,” she said, saying to create a single norm for the whole world would not work, “because the needs of the Church are different in each place,” and the synod must consider each situation and voice.

Silva voiced her hope that bishops would consider a selective opening to the women’s diaconate based on need, saying there are many places that could use it, but the dioceses “are closed, they don’t want it.”

“I hope it is opened for (us), in order to give the opportunity to others,” she said.

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