When Kabul fell and thousands of Afghan refugees were housed on military bases across the United States, one of the first people to raise their hand to help was my colleague, Sr Maryanne Loughry. She packed up her things and moved to Fort McCoy to help set up support for those temporarily housed on base. She organized child-friendly spaces, rallied volunteers, helped provide psychosocial and mental health support, and built lasting relationships with Afghans who had gone through unimaginable circumstances.
When the pandemic hit, followed closely by a huge explosion and political and economic strife in Beirut, it was my colleague Heba who raised her hand to say that our team’s work would continue no matter what. She organized staff to deliver food and provide aid when the city went into lockdown and was one of the first people to call survivors of the blast. She kept the doors open against all odds.
Although she suffered abuse, was forced into marriage as a teenager and had to flee violence and persecution in her home country of Sudan, my colleague Aicha raised her hand and fought for an education. She now leads our early childhood education program in Chad, called Little Ripples. It is a refugee-led program that provides comprehensive early childhood education that supports the social-emotional, cognitive and physical development of young children.
March 8 is International Women’s Day, an important and necessary recognition of the needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls. Having served for many years in leadership roles for Catholic organizations, I am particularly aware of how the Catholic Church is called to involve women in all that we do. We need to serve women, but we also need women to serve. Women like Sister Maryanne, Heba, Aicha, and hundreds of others bring unique and important qualities to the work the Church does around the world. They are determined and resourceful, they put their communities first, and they lead and serve with care and concern.
When I started working in international development, one of the things I quickly learned was that investing in women and women’s leadership has repercussions far beyond the direct beneficiary. Search by the United States Agency for International Development found that when 10% or more of adolescent girls attend school, a country’s gross domestic product increases by an average of 3%. Indeed, women and girls invest in their families and communities and often take what is given to them to serve others.
The role of women throughout the history of the Church also deserves attention on this day dedicated to the contributions of women. I think of some remarkable women, like Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, whose leadership and service have been so important to the mission of the Church. Dedicated, powerful, and sometimes brazen in her determination, she carried out important work for the church in the United States and led missions to provide care and hospitality to those seeking a better life in a new land. The inspiration I find in Mother Cabrini is not only in her sponsorship of immigrants, a cause close to my heart and the very essence of my organization’s mission. She inspires me because of the unique leadership she brought to her work. His leadership was steeped in prayer and directed and informed by those who needed it most, not by those in power.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day around the world this year, it is more important than ever that we recognize the important qualities that women bring and the essential contributions that we make to society as a whole, and in particular to the mission of the church in the world.