ROME — A recent Vatican conference heard strong calls for female empowerment in a world in which gender discrimination remains widespread, and in which, as one speaker put it, there are places where sexual violence and social bias is so pervasive that “it’s better to be a cow than a girl.”

As part of that picture, speakers pressed the Catholic Church to live up to its own talk about the importance of women, moving from an “occasional” to a “habitual” commitment to seeing women in leadership positions, even if not as ordained priests.

The gathering took place in the Casina Pio IV, home of the Pontifical Academy for Science, and marked the third consecutive year the Vatican staged an event in conjunction with the United Nations-sponsored International Women’s Day.

There were no Vatican officials in the lineup, but rather Catholic leaders and activists from around the world.

The event, called “Voices of Faith,” was a storytelling event designed for women to share their stories “in the spirit of Francis.”

“Today we share the incredible stories of people who are making our world a better place,” said Mary Lou Falcone, chairwoman of the group’s advisory board chairwoman.

Notably, none of the speakers reflected on the female role as mothers, usually a hallmark of Vatican speech on women’s issues.

Instead, one thrust of the discussion was the importance of making sure that when women do become wives and mothers, it’s a voluntary choice rather than the result of coercion or social pressure. A video presentation pointed out that in a developing country, a girl with an education will likely have fewer children.

On a panel about child brides, Judy Onyango of Kenya made the case that education protects girls from being married off at a young age. Another panelist, the Rev. George Menamprarampli of India, said that in some parts of his country, “it’s better to be a cow than a girl. You’ll be more respected as a cow than a young girl.”

Menamprarampli told the story of a woman in his country who was forced to marry at 14, and whose daughter married at the same age. Today, he said, the first woman is “a grandmother at the age of 30.”

One of the strongest presentations came from Cecilia Flores-Oebanda of the Philippines, founder of the Visayan Forum Foundation, which fights human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

A former child laborer herself, she was imprisoned in 1982 by her country’s dictatorial government, since she was one of the leaders of the guerrilla movement that fought the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. She was released after four years, and since then has been working to protect children and women.

After sharing grueling memories of her time in prison, she said that she found it very difficult to answer Pope Francis’ call to be merciful.

“How can I forgive and forget those men who cut boys in front of me?” she said. “Forgiveness doesn’t come easy. But after spending time with the survivors in our shelter, I learned how to do so. You don’t have courage without mercy, and you cannot move on without forgiving.”

An estimated 30 million people are victims of human trafficking today, forced into prostitution and to work in slave-like situations.

“One-year-olds are sold for cyber-sex, five-year-olds get to us with their bodies already lacerated,” Flores said.

Tuesday’s conference was a reminder that Catholic women have long been at the forefront of the fight for social equality, a point Pope Francis has recognized.

“[Nuns are] women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you on the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel,” the pontiff said in an meeting with religious women and men last September during his trip to the United States.

“I wish to say ‘thank you,’ a big thank you… and to tell you that I love you very much.”

In the past three years, Francis also has spoken in favor of women’s rights on various occasions, saying that it’s a “Christian duty” to support the right to equal pay for equal work, and urged the United Nations to guarantee access to education for girls.

The pontiff also has called for more women in decision-making roles within the Church, the Vatican included.

During an intergenerational panel at the conference, several women asked the Vatican to work faster in giving women “a place in the table.”

“Women not only need to be in leadership, but in visible positions of leadership,” said Nicole Perone, a student in Yale’s divinity school. She raised a question many have asked before her: Why can’t there be a female head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, for instance, or for the Vatican department on family?

“Do we really mean what we say, when we say all are welcome in the Church?” Perone asked.

Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services in the United States, pointed out that 80 percent of the Church’s lay ministers today are women. She also highlighted the fact that in many fields, the Church is ahead of the secular world when it comes to women in positions of leadership, noting that the share of women serving as presidents of Catholic universities in the United States is higher than among their secular counterparts.

“We have women leaders in various positions,” Woo said. “The issue is taking it from the occasional to the habitual.”

She also called for women to be engaged in the Church as “family” and not as “guest workers,” and warned against stalling the conversation because the “loudest voice” in favor of women is that lobbying for female ordination.

“Ordination is off the table,” she said. “[But] there’s a suspicion when women speak: is this leading to female ordination?” She said this is unfortunate, because by becoming suspicious, “we stop hearing the voices of women.”

“Different popes, Francis and Benedict [XVI] referred to the term of ‘feminine genius’,” she said. “I also think of women’s sensitivity, their ability to care, it’s wonderful, but what about women as social critics and social activists, like Dorothy Day?”

Woo suggested the Church should encourage not only women who are tender and nurturing, but also those who are tough and “scandalous” such as Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and a fierce social critic.