Panelists speak during the Caritas conference at UNESCO in Paris Panelists speak during the Caritas conference at UNESCO in Paris 

Caritas conference on women: 'Fighting to ensure equality for the voiceless'

The final day of the Caritas conference on "The full face of humanity: women in leadership roles for a just humanity" features testimonies highlighting the harsh realities women face every day, while offering an attempt to forge solutions to a global problem.

By Francesca Merlo - Paris

The second day of the conference “The Full Face of Humanity: Women in Leadership for a Just Society” kicked off at the UNESCO Headquartes in Paris with a panel made up of people representing Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Witht these five women and men, talks began on this final day of conference, with as its aim to grasp some of the core issues discussed on Thursday which hold women and girls back, thus inhibiting their empowerment, and to discuss potential solutions to those issues.

Friday saw panel discussions on economic independence, health, nutrition and food security, but also on how to equip women with the necessary tools for leadership. Some panelists asked the question: "What are they keys to opportunity?"

Hunger and nutrition

The first to speak, via video message, was a nutritionist from Venezuela, Susana Raffalli. 

Amongst the poignant statements she shared - such as women being 8 cm shorter than men when both face malnutrition - was her description of this conference as “the voice of the hungriest women and girls on earth”.

Tackling social and cutural norms

Marthe Wandou spoke next, as an advocate for women's rights and winner of the Right Livelihood Award. She stressed the importance of not only giving young girls a chance, but also of giving women a second chance.

Ms. Wandou discussed the reality in her geographical area, Cameroon, with the rise of Boko Haram, as well as other terror groups which bring violence, sexual violence, fear, displacement and death. Unfortunately, she noted, as in some other African countries, certain areas of Cameroon present strong cultural and traditional beliefs which hold back the fight for equality, as lack of education and discriminatory views of women impede their progress and keep them away from opportunities. 

This point was picked up on shortly after by Dr. Marianna Zanette, an Italian gynecologist who has spent many years working in Sierra Leone, as well as other Western African countries.

Women facing health issues often do not know what to do or to whom to turn, she said. In rural villages, women cannot do much without the permission of their husbands. If they do get permission to go to a hospital, often they do not have the means to get there and once they do get there they face incompetent or slow treatment. Often, the easiest solution is to turn to a traditional healer, who, as Dr Zanette notes, lack medical training. 

Christine Allen, Director of CAFOD, used the term “systemic barriers” to describe some of these issues. As a moderator, Philip Pullela from Reuters noted: "The only way to overcome these systemic barriers is with a systemic response."

Empathy and other lessons

As well as speaking of the reality in his region, the Middle East, Karam Abi Yazbeck, Regional Coordinator for Caritas MONA, spoke about having lost his father at a young age and so growing up with his mother and three sisters.

His mother became his first model of a leader, and she taught him unconditional love, and empathy. He noted that his mother and sisters taught him not only the skills necessary to live well, but also the behaviours and attitudes proper to a well-rounded adult and leader. 

Solving one's own problems is not enough

Another touching testimony came from Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, a witness and advocate for women's rights.

Ms. Ibrahim is a Sudanese Christian who was imprisoned for converting to Christianity. She was sentenced to 100 lashes and death by hanging and was imprisoned along with her 9 month-old son.

Whilst in prison she found out she was pregant with her daughter, and for this reason her execution was postponed. She gave birth in chains, and thanks to the international community she was freed and now lives in the Unites States with her family.

She told participants at the conference that she is often asked why she does not just sit back, relax and enjoy her life with her family, and she replied that whilst imprisoned she received the support that she knows all suffering women deserve, but that sadly that is not the case.

"I am fighting for them," she concluded. 

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28 October 2022, 14:45