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Ready to board the train into the city. From left: Ellen Rodriguez (Adrian associate) and Sisters Margaret Mayce, OP (DSC UN-NGO representative); Sister Pamela Robles Espinoza (Peru); Sister Paulina Chioma Ogbonnaya (Nigeria, Africa); Sister Edel Murphy (Dublin, Ireland), Sister Mary Sue Kennedy (DSC executive director) and Sister Corrine Sanders (Adrian).

UN Commission on the Status of Women
Empowerment, education focus of sessions

By Susan Oxley

The 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) began Monday, March 4, and continues through Friday, March 15. I had the privilege of attending for a few days as a member of the Dominican Sisters Conference staff, along with Sister Mary Sue Kennedy. We spent two days at the UN, attending “parallel events” that were offered in conjunction with the general sessions.

Sister Margaret Mayce helps students from St. Catharine College plan their day at the UN

Our experience was enriched by the opportunity to meet and talk with Dominican sisters from other countries whose attendance was sponsored by Dominican Sisters International. A group of 12 students from St. Catherine College in St. Catherine, Kentucky, were also attending on their spring break.

One session we attended, sponsored by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was “Moving the Immigrant Girl from Violence of Cultural Uprooting to Empowerment of Creative Expression.” Members of the panel included Christina Igoa, teacher and author of “The Inner World of the Immigrant Child.” The testimony of 12-year-old Rosario Campos, born in Mexico, was especially compelling—she came to the United States at age 6 and was confused by language and cultural differences. With the help of Ms. Igoa, she learned to read, in English, by the third grade, was elected student body president in the sixth grade, and is currently in seventh grade and on her school’s honor roll.

Getting input from attendees at a session on media as a tool to fight violence against women

I also attended “Media as an Instrument to Fight Violence Against Women in Conflict-Affected Settings.” Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, human rights lawyer and World YWCA general secretary, introduced the session. The panel included Abigail Disney, filmmaker and philanthropist, who made the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” about the civil war in Liberia, and also produced the PBS mini-series “Women, War & Peace.”

Other sessions we attended included “Gender-Based Violence and Religion: An Intersectional Perspective” and “Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls in Afghanistan.” One of the women who spoke on this panel was a member of the Aghanistan parliament. During this session, there was a brief film clip with testimonials from young women in Afghanistan. One woman, possibly now in her early 20s, was stabbed repeatedly and left for dead by her father and brother after she refused to marry the man who had been chosen for her. As a girl, she was regarded as the property of her family, with no rights of her own.

Session on violence against women and girls in Afganistan

As I reflect on this experience, and as I read the reflections of the Dominican Sisters attending the CSW, I am feeling especially grateful to be working among those advocating for change, and for the opportunity to “inform, promote and inspire” through the ministry of Dominican Life | USA.

Some thank-you's are in order here. Sister Margaret Mayce, DSC UN-NGO representative, was an invaluable guide to the ins and out of the UN, as well as the logistics of New York City commuting. Sister Mary Ellen O’Grady was queen of the road in her red Prius as she navigated through the heavy snowfall to get us to the airport on Friday. And we all enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the Dominican Sisters of Hope at Mariandale Retreat Center in Ossining, New York.

Reflections: A Dominican perspective

Sisters Pamela (Peru), Paulina (Nigeria), Edel (Ireland), Corrine (United States) and Cecille (Philippines) answered some questions for DomLife about their experience at the UN CSW. This was their first time attending a UN event. Below are excerpts from their responses.

Sister Pamela Robles Espinoza, OP, is a member of the Dominican Missionaries of the Rosary in Peru. She works in the office of Human Rights of the Apostolic Vicariate of Mother of God in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. She is also a member of her congregation’s Justice, Peace and Care of Creation Committee.

Why did you come to the UN CSW?
Given the work that I do and the goals of my congregation, it is very important that we know the reality in which people live. Personally, I am very interested in the theme. I work each day with women who lack money, education, and whose dignity is violated. The authorities can speak about their advances, but forget the people most isolated. Nonetheless, there is hope for gender equality; the women can generate changes, and demand their countries listen and improve their political processes.

What topics/sessions most engaged your interest, and why?
The side event in which some student leaders from Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador and the United States spoke together of empowerment; of the ways in which violence against women is exercised; and of the solutions that can be found. They stressed the first years of education as being very important in this regard. They also spoke of the various means of communications, and how they influence schools and societies that live in a state of violence toward women. They encouraged us to change our mentality in order to change this reality.

As a Dominican, what do you feel it is important for other Dominicans to know about the work of the UN?
I definitely believe that it is important for Dominicans to be aware of world realities. The experience is enriching and it stretches our relationships. In the causes that we are able to support, we can generate change in our local authorities by using communications wisely. Communications among ourselves is also essential.

What new insights/hopes/dreams/ideas are you taking away from this experience, and how will they influence your ministry?
The pain and the reality of the women who come to my mind as a result of these days is unimaginable. I believe that there are obstacles that we can overcome; that we must support Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe; that the social problems that exist in these realities are universal, with the distinct matrix of culture. However, at the base, these problems are universal, and they demand a response that will generate change in each particular area.

Sister Paulina Chioma Ogbonnaya, OP, is the prioress of the Congregation of St. Catherine of Siena in Nigeria. She is the Promoter for Justice and Peace for Dominican Sisters Africa and co-promoter of the Order for the Continent of Africa. She is also a council member of the Dominican Sisters Africa (DSA) coordinating team.

Describe your current ministry. Generally, I see to the administration of the community and the spiritual well-being of the sisters… My ministry is more of coordination and passing information from the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top. It also includes travelling and organizing so as to create more awareness about issues of justice and peace and the Dominican Family’s involvement.

Why did you come to the UN CSW? I came to learn more and listen to people’s experiences and to see how it could be applied in my own realities back there in Africa.

What topics/sessions have most engaged your interest, and why?
Two topics/sessions especially have most engaged my interest: topics on the various types of violence against women and the girl child, and topics on how to empower women and the girl child in our different societies. I am particularly interested in empowerment through EDUCATION; especially for the girl child who tomorrow will become a woman violated and trafficked, if not empowered through education. In Africa, the high level of illiteracy makes women and the girl child vulnerable for trafficking, abuse and violence. Women and the girl child accept the abnormal to be normal because of illiteracy. For instance, for the women, it is normal to accept that the place of the woman is in the kitchen and to bear as many children as the man decides, and for the girl child it is normal that she should not go to school like her brothers. Since she is a girl, she just has to prepare herself for marriage and go to her husband’s house, she has no place in her father’s house and so it is useless to spend money training her in school. So we see a culture and tradition where women and the girl child are just victims of their sex or gender.

As a Dominican, what do you feel it is important for other Dominicans to know about the work of the UN? As a Dominican, I feel that it is important for other Dominicans to know that through the work of the UN, our voices as a family could be heard all over the world because the sons and daughters of St. Dominic are present in all the continents of the world… Today a Dominican cannot afford to work in isolation; we need to collaborate more with the various arms or branches of the Dominican family as well as with other interest groups, organizations or religious bodies and involve them concretely in our salvation ministry. During these days in the UN, I am becoming more and more convinced that the world, this big world of ours, is becoming more and more a global village. It seems to me that we are just living one beside the other without minding race, colour, religion, food, clothing or otherwise.

What new insights/hopes/dreams/ideas are you taking away from this experience, and how will they influence your ministry? I have a dream—a dream that every woman and girl child should be given the weapon of EDUCATION! With this weapon, knowledge will come, illiteracy will disappear, and structures that promote violence against women will be conquered. With this weapon, every woman and every girl that will become the woman of tomorrow will be empowered economically, socially and otherwise… It is my hope and dream as I carry on my ministry as a Dominican woman, to promote the education of the girl child up to the higher school level.

Sister Corinne Sanders, OP, is a member of the leadership team of the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Adrian, Michigan. As general councilor, she serves on various boards of the congregation’s sponsored institutions, works with their communications and technology department, and is the liaison for the congregation’s Office of Global Mission, Justice and Peace.

Why did you come to the UN CSW? When I entered religious life, one important consideration for me was the involvement and concern of the congregation in the lives and well-being of women in church and society. Having heard of this opportunity to attend the CSW as a representative of the North American Dominicans, our leadership submitted my name to the lottery. I was very excited to have been chosen. One goal I have/had is to find ways to strengthen the connection between our peace and justice work and the work of the UN and our DLC NGO.

What topics/sessions have most engaged your interest, and why? I have attended a variety of workshops relative to the trafficking of human beings, the institutionalization of violence against women and the role of religion, the climate in Afghanistan relative to women and the progress made and yet to be made in Afghanistan, school programs that address the migrating child and her/his hardship encountered in the U.S. system, issues of media and violence, and listening to the live webcasts of the UN sessions. All of these have been of interest. It has been good to hear of strategies being developed and implemented at the grassroots level to counter violence in all forms and to assist the victims/survivors of such violence. The work of many groups now encompasses the education and involvement of men and boys in countering violence against women.
The need for education remains strong in order to bring awareness of rights, of abuses, and of the structural/institutional causes of violence. The hurdles and hardships encountered by girls as they seek education are issues in need of solutions.

As a Dominican, what do you feel it is important for other Dominicans to know about the work of the UN? It is important for us to know what the UN is supporting so that we in our various ministries can bring this work to the foreground in whatever way possible. Only with widespread support of the various goals and documents of the UN will implementation be successful. It seems important for Dominican men and women to provide a basis of support of the work of the UN so that local governments will implement the recommendations.

What new insights/hopes/dreams/ideas are you taking away from this experience, and how will they influence your ministry? Though not a new insight, I come away realizing once again that violence against women and girls (boys and men as well) will continue as long as an environment of fear of reprisal, ignorance of legal and human rights, and turning a blind eye to what we see before us remains in place. Efforts must be made to educate at all levels and with all people. Efforts need to be made to reveal the truth of such violence and the inherent structural and institutional causes of perpetuating domination and violence. Efforts also need to be made to provide safe environments where women and girls can find help and support to live fully alive and human.

Sister Edel Murphy, OP, serves on the leadership team of her congregation, the Cabra Dominican Sisters in Dublin, Ireland. She taught sixth grade prior to being elected.

Why did you come to the UN CSW? I got to come because of age! We wanted our “younger” members to become aware of working with other Dominican sisters. Also concern about justice issues.

What topics/sessions have most engaged your interest, and why? Areas to do with trafficking, domestic violence, topic of prostitution and young people and the abuse that is happening through social media. I found myself engaging with it because of its relevance to countries we are present in… I was also impressed with the active involvement of the Girl Guides association and how they see their role in empowering young women to be leaders… I deeply admired the creativity of women in tackling the issues [e.g. through drama—in their presentations].

As a Dominican, what do you feel it is important for other Dominicans to know about the work of the UN? Be aware of issues in where we may be biased, examine what the UN says of them, learn from other nations, that unless we collaborate together change will not be as effective; the power of mentoring and reporting by the UN. The NGOs are seen as vital and being a positive force in getting change for the better implementation of laws.

What new insights/hopes/dreams/ideas are you taking away from this experience, and how will they influence your ministry? First steps: to report and share what was learned here to congregation council, to write up an article and offer it to Dominican publication (Dublin), and place reflection in our own newsletter, to inform the justice office in Ireland, to be aware of information that comes out through Internet, offer to share with our two novices in Ireland, to communicate now with one another, to engage in local issues such as in Ireland now around prostitution and the bill of law that is being brought in.

Sister Cecilia Espenilla, OP, is a member of the Congrergation of St. Catherine of Siena, Philippines. She is chair of her congregation’s Council on Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC). She is also in the last year of a six-year term as the DSI Coordinator for the Asia-Pacific region.

What topics/sessions have most engaged your interest, and why? The topics that engaged me most are those that concern issues on Human Trafficking and Migrants. The Asia-Pacific continent and my country, the Philippines, in particular have one of the most number of victims of human trafficking as well as migrants in the world. We have many stories of young girls whose life and future have been completely ruined because of human trafficking, usually as sex slaves and forced labor. I had talked to some of these girls and their stories will tear your heart apart. As to migrants, who are mostly women, although some have success stories, yet a good number of them ended up with nothing in their pockets and remain indebted to friends and relatives from whom they borrowed money to travel abroad. Some have been imprisoned, tortured, raped, abandoned and treated no less than an animal. Thus these two topics are the ones closest to my heart, coupled with the fact that most of our students are children of migrants. Related to migrants are issues of family and children left behind, which is another major concern for those in the school.

As a Dominican, what do you feel it is important for other Dominicans to know about the work of the UN? I have met so many people from so many countries from so many kinds of organizations and civil societies created in order to respond to the various needs, concerns and issues of people, especially women and girls… I came to realize that the UN faces tremendous challenges, problems and issues on a daily basis, some of which are crucial, urgent and life-threatening… I was very amazed to hear of so many civil societies and NGOs who are indeed very active and truly responsive to the actual needs and situations of conflict, problems and concerns on the ground. It is good for the Dominicans to know that we have an active presence at the UN both in New York and Geneva… [The] UN alone will not be effective and affective without the help and support of civil societies. I think that the heart and the hands of the UN are the various NGOs and civil societies, because love and compassion are their priorities.

What new insights/hopes/dreams/ideas are you taking away from this experience, and how will they influence your ministry?

As I have said earlier, Asia is at the top when it comes to violence against women and girls. I have heard first-hand stories of these different forms of violence from the CSW speakers, members of the panel and interventions of participants and guests. Hence, there is a need for Dominicans in Asia-Pacific to work, collaborate and find linkages to help protect and strengthen the respect for the dignity of women and girls. I am hoping that hand-in-hand we will be able to empower the victims to rise and discover hope for the future and for volunteers and workers to continue the task of education, information, service and assistance to victims and even the perpetrators.

I also realized that at the end of the journey in trying to find solutions to the various forms of violence against women and children is true PEACE and RECONCILIATION. Peace that gives respect and dignity to others because they are our fellow human beings. Peace borne from love of self, of others and above all, the love of God. Peace offers and believes in reconciliation. The inner being and the inner spirit are important truths that should never be forgotten in our journey to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. At the end, we should never forget that human beings have souls.