Women Religious on the frontlines
By Philippa Hitchen
Women religious, working in some of the world’s worst conflict zones, are sharing their stories on Wednesday at a seminar organised by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
Jointly sponsored by the International Union of Superiors General and Solidarity with South Sudan, the encounter will highlight the vital, yet often unseen, work of sisters serving in some of the most deprived communities in countries across the globe.
Among those attending the meeting at the UISG headquarters is Italian Sister Maria Elena Berini, named as recipient of the U.S. government’s 2018 International Women of Courage award.
The Vatican’s ‘foreign minister’, Archbishop Paul Gallagher will address the seminar, which is also shining the spotlight on religious women working to combat human trafficking.
Among the promoters of the event is the executive director of Solidarity with South Sudan, Sr Yudith Pereira. She talks about the work that women religious are doing in that conflict-ridden country, where few other organisations are able to operate
Sr. Yudith says that people in South Sudan feel very close to the sisters, as they have also suffered attacks, some have been raped, others killed or robbed, “so people feel we’re very near”.
The role of women religious
She says women religious play “a role of motherhood for many adults and young people” who’ve known nothing but conflict in their country. “We offer an educational space, where they can find everything to be well and live and grow and change”, she says.
Asked about what changes she would like to see to support her work, Sr. Yudith says it would be useful to create official structures within the church to collaborate better on joint programmes.
The importance of advocacy
Advocacy, she adds, is vital part of that work, finding ways of sharing their experiences, to “receive and give orientation to the hierarchy”, so that together they can have a positive influence at different levels.
Another participant in the seminar is Argentinian Sr. Carmen Bandeo, who has extensive experience working in education, in prison ministry and in anti-trafficking efforts at UN level.
Building peace and promoting human dignity across the board
She stresses that women religious work not only in conflict zones, but in all areas where they can help to build peace and promote the dignity of human life
Speaking of her own experience of prison ministry, she notes how “our presence restores the dignity of the prisoners”, as well as offering the guards and police an opportunity to “discover their own humanity”. Similarly, with trafficked women and those held in detention centres with their children, she says, women religious work to restore “relations of life” to all sides.