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New York, New York, March 27, 2023 – In the midst of Women’s History Month, three Dominican Sisters spoke of their efforts to empower women in rural areas around the world. They spoke on March 14, 2023, during the 67th Session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67), held March 6-17, 2023.
Adrian Dominican Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP, as representative of the Dominican Sisters Conference (DSC) at the United Nations, facilitated the webinar.
Sister Elsa Myriam Londoña, OP, spoke of her experiences of accompanying the people in rural Ecuador, coming into relationship with families and forming them into service to the Church and the world. “This is a methodology that we use in our work: perceive the reality as it is, embrace this reality, understand, and take action at the same time,” she said.
In her ministry, she strives to form a group of Servers of the Word in each community to celebrate the sacraments, participate in pastoral care, and work together. One focus is the celebration of life at all stages and all seasons, she said. The biggest challenges Sister Elsa sees include taking care of the environment, organizing women, and training in human and social ventures.
Sister Elsa spoke of the key role of women in protecting the planet. “The woman is the one who always takes care of the land,” she said. The women follow their ancestral practices of natural medicine, promoting food security in their communities, and taking up the struggle to maintain a healthy environment, she said.
“The mission of consecrated women today begins with the understanding of our identity and the work within the Church – a lifestyle that has to be permeated by values – values that go through listening, through the relationship of care, through radicality, through tenacity to offer life,” Sister Elsa concluded. “These are the faces of the women we accompany – women working to organize themselves.”
Sister Nicole Kabore spoke of the many challenges and inequalities that women face daily in the rural areas of Burkina Faso, in West Africa. “One of the consequences of poverty is that women are treated poorly,” she explained. “She has to take care of the family. She’s responsible for feeding, healthcare, education, and all the responsibilities of the family,” including working outside the home if the family needs more money.
Because mothers and daughters are responsible for the household tasks, they rarely have the time to attend school – and priority is given to the education of boys, Sister Nicole said. Because of their lack of education, women are often treated poorly and, when they need to work, are relegated to menial work and work in the fields, she explained.
Sister Nicole also pointed to women in Burkina Faso who face particular difficulties: those who cannot have children and are blamed for this, even if they might not be the cause of infertility, and widows who have no support. A widow “loses all her privileges,” she explained. “Familial goods are confiscated by her husband’s family.” If the husband’s family tells her to marry one of his brothers and she refuses, she is often banished from the family.
A goal of the ministry in Burkina Faso is to teach women that they have rights, Sister Nicole said. “Women have the right to express themselves but this is the real challenge, especially in certain cultures,” she said. “Very few women have a voice in the nature of decisions that are made in regard to their community. We try to help them gain their voice.”
Sister Teresa, of the Dominican Sisters of Charity of the Presentation, focused her talk on the Marie Poussepin Center (MPC), a boarding school for girls that her Sisters operate in the town of Guaimaca, Honduras. The MPC gives girls the opportunity for education that they ordinarily would not have in a society in which education of girls ends after sixth grade.
“Their education [at the boarding school] is in God, faith, and studies,” Sister Teresa explained. “Education is integral. We try to teach them things that would give them many resources so they can do better in life,” such as culinary and sewing skills, agriculture practices, medicinal plants, work in the environment, technology, and appreciation of their own culture.
“It’s beautiful to see what the girls know,” Sister Teresa said. “They don’t want to leave anybody in their family who can’t write. They’re helping to teach everybody, helping them to reach at least sixth grade.”
Sister Teresa said the boarding school has already come to a harvest. Many of its graduates go on to colleges and universities – some in the United States – and have chosen careers in areas such as nursing, agricultural engineering, business, psychology, and agronomy.
“The most beautiful part of this is that we work with a team of volunteers who put their talents and gifts at the service of others,” including many Dominican Volunteers, Sister Teresa said. She invited Sisters throughout the world who are looking for an opportunity to be of service to spend some months or years in service at the Marie Poussepin Center. “We would receive you with open arms,” she said.
In concluding the webinar, Sister Durstyne noted that a fourth Dominican Sister – Sister Monica from Pakistan – was unable to join the webinar because of technological issues. “We thank our sisters for their personal stories in working with women’s empowerment,” Sister Durstyne said. “Your work reminds us that no woman must be left behind. May we continue to raise the voice and the power of women through the help of one another and the power of God.”
February 13, 2023, San Salvador, El Salvador – Adrian Dominican Sisters Leonor Esnard, OP, and Barbara Kelley, OP, were among 42 delegates – Catholic Sisters, graduate students, professionals, and activists – who took part in a November 29-December 12, 2022, delegation to Central America: a journey of discovery, solidarity, and advocacy.
The experience encompassed two separate delegations. Roses in December, the November 29-December 4, 2022, experience in El Salvador, was co-sponsored by the SHARE Foundation and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization of the elected leadership of the majority of congregations of U.S. Catholic Sisters.
Roses in December marked the 42nd anniversary of the killing of four U.S. Catholic missionaries who were in ministry in El Salvador. Members of the delegation spent much of their time learning about and honoring those four martyrs. In addition, they learned about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who stood up for human rights and was shot on March 24, 1980, and six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter, who were murdered during the night in November 1989 in their residence at the University of Central America.
True to the mission of the SHARE Foundation to focus on accompaniment, solidarity, and advocacy, the delegates also learned about the current political context in El Salvador – marked by increasing oppression and martial law – as well as the programs offered by SHARE’s local community partners to make a difference in the lives of the people. They also had the opportunity to hear the stories of the people and to show their support.
Immediately following this experience was the Vamos A La Milpah delegation to Honduras, December 5-12, 2022. Some participants stayed in the urban area of San Pedro Sula to learn about the circumstances of the people who live in cities and about the programs of the Sisters of Mercy that helped to address their difficulties. Others traveled about seven hours by bus to Bajo Aguan, an agricultural area, to meet people who continue to defend their water and land rights, often at the risk of their lives.
The experience of meeting the campesinos who were threatened by extractive industry corporations to give up their land became poignant to members of the delegation after their return to the United States with the news that several land rights activists in Honduras were killed.
Each day was filled with scheduled events and activities, but the delegates also had time to share their lives and their experiences with one another during long bus rides, meals and at the retreat center and hotels where they stayed.
Sister Leonor said that, while this was her first trip to Central America, “the lush green woods were a warm reminder of my previous trips to Havana” in her native Cuba. Speaking Spanish throughout the two-week experience “was another way for me to engage with people and reconnect with my native culture and language.”
Sister Leonor said she learned much from the experience. “My most compelling awareness was the solidarity shared by the people among themselves and with us,” she said. “We learned about human rights violations, extensive poverty, the abuse of women, the detention of youth, political torture, and death. Suffering was endured, but it was not the center of people’s lives. Suffering was integrated into transforming and motivating [the people of Central America] to create collaborative, vital organizations for advocacy rooted in faith.”
Sister Barbara spoke of her gratitude to the Congregation for the opportunity to participate in the delegation. “It was an eye-opening and a heart-opening experience as I learned about the difficulties that the people continue to face – and yet the welcome, the joy, and the friendship they shared with us,” she said. “The experience has changed me and has helped me to feel in my heart that the people in El Salvador and Honduras are my brothers and sisters – and that we’re all connected."
Sisters Leonor and Barbara will share their experience in greater detail during a live stream presentation, scheduled for 7:00 p.m. EST Thursday, March 2, 2023.
View recordings of their presentation below, in English and Spanish.
Feature photo: Sisters Leonor Esnard, OP, left, and Barbara Kelley, OP, at a mural in El Salvador. The Sisters were members of the Roses in December delegation to El Salvador and Honduras.