|A woman’s work…
With the aid of Messenger readers, Saint Anthony’s Charities are undertaking three very special humanitarian projects in different parts of the world in celebration of the Jubilee Year
Julia Cananzi SEVENTY PER CENT of the world’s poor and two thirds of its illiterate are women, but they are generally responsible for bringing up the world’s children and looking after the old and the infirm. When a woman has no means, no qualified job and no education, she has neither the opportunity nor sufficient knowledge to educate her children, prevent illnesses in the family or get a sufficiently well paid job to make ends meet. This situation perpetuates not only widespread discrimination against women but also the underdevelopment of entire populations in vast areas of the world.
Over the years, an awareness of this situation has led Saint Anthony’s Charities to favour projects aimed at improving the situation of children and women. The three projects presented this year will be established in three countries in which women are particularly disadvantaged. They are three small contributions, three examples of how all of us can play a part in attempting to redress the balance in favour of the world’s women.
In the city of Madras alone, street children number at least 75,000. More than half of them are girls or teenage women. Traditionally, female children are considered less important: it is not essential to give them an education or to take care of them. They are even given less affection by their families. Many of them have alcoholic fathers who subject them to violence and sexual abuse.
Some girls start work as young as three years old – they sell flowers or vegetables with their mothers. Older girls are employed as servants, or work in construction companies, in sweatshops or in factories which produce plastic or electronic components. Often illiterate and without future prospects, these girls grow up with no self esteem and little hope. Frequently, they are forced into marriage at a very young age.
If these girls run away from home or are abandoned by their families, the situation is still worse: they are in much greater danger of being sexually abused. They may go to the city dreaming of a better life, but they are at risk, and tend to put their trust in whoever offers them any sort of affection. Their fate is often to be sexually abused or forced into prostitution.
We are working on this year’s project with the Marialaya Association of the Salesian Nuns, who have been taking care of these girls since 1990, the only institution in the area to do so. The organisation is striking in that it is so simple, but effective. Local nuns and volunteers, working in shifts, are constantly present in 48 strategic locations spread around the city, which are known as ‘contact points’. When the volunteers first approach these ‘street girls’, they try to pass on what they call an ‘informal education’: lessons in hygiene, self-esteem, handicraft courses, basic literacy and information on their constitutional rights. Among the services provided are health care and the organisation of wholesome recreational activities. Later on, once the ice has been broken, the volunteers will attempt to provide the girls with a home in an institution, a place at school, professional training or even a job. More than 2,000 young girls are currently being helped by these contact centres.
For those who need shelter, the association has set up an open hostel: the young girls are free to enter or to leave, but at least they have a firm reference point and receive a basic level of education. The nuns have created an environment of love, comprehension and empathy which these girls have never found anywhere else, affirms Fr. Luciano Massarotto, director of Saint Anthony’s Charities. No one judges them, none of them are turned away. These nuns identify with the girls they work with. They feel no different from them. They are Indian women among other Indian women, and they are happy to bear the same weight of marginalisation, fatigue and suffering as the others do. The home can house between 50 and 75 girls. In the last four years, over 500 girls have lived there.
The sisters need our help to broaden their activity, since there are tens of thousands of young girls who have no protection, noone to turn to. They would also like to better their assistance by offering specific job training. They therefore ask for the construction of a second hostel and a training centre with workshops where various types of professional activities will be based in order to ensure that the girls receive practical training and a reasonable wage for their training period. Particular attention will be paid to teaching them about workers’ rights, savings and child-care.
The sisters have already purchased 220 square metres of land. Saint Anthony’s Charities are hoping to finance the final project for a total of $200,000 (£130,000).
The relationship between the Messenger of Saint Anthony and the people of East Timor goes back to 1996 when a group of friars went to the island as part of the celebrations for the 800th anniversary of Saint Anthony’s birth, bringing a relic of the Saint for the veneration of devotees there. At the time few people knew of the little island in the Indian Ocean, situated between Australia and the Indonesian archipelago, where the indigenous population was struggling heroically for independence from the Jakarta regime. But the people’s suffering, the climate of persecution and the eternal mourning, all suffered in silence, made a deep impression on the friars.
It was Monsignor Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo himself, the bishop of Dili and future Nobel peace Prize winner, who asked for our help for East Timor. Our ties have been close ever since, and we experienced the latest events in the country at first hand: the hope, when on August 30, 1999, the people were called to vote on whether to accept autonomous rule under the Indonesian regime, or to choose full independence. After the expected vote for independence, pro-Indonesian militias wreaked havoc on the island, causing thousands of deaths and forcing 350,000 people (out of a total population of 828,000) to flee for their lives.
The fate of the island was interwoven with another event which moved the world: the heroic death of various religious, among whom were the Canossian nuns Sister Erminia and Sister Celeste. When Saint Anthony’s Charities decided on the projects for this June, it seemed natural to offer the Canossian nuns, who have played an important role in East Timor, our help towards the reconstruction of the island.
The Sisters’ mission on the island fits in well with the theme of the world’s women which Saint Anthony’s Charities have set for this year’s projects. Indeed, an important part of their mission involves helping women and their families.
The mission of Sister Erminia and Sister Celeste was dedicated to caring for women and children: they had founded and run many boarding schools for girls in which, as well as education, much effort was given to the promotion of human development. For them it was important that their girls should have a future, be aware of their possibilities and become good mothers.
The war left Sister Erminia and Sister Celeste dead, and destroyed all the boarding schools run by the Canossians in East Timor, but it didn’t destroy the will of the congregation to start again. From the sacrifice of the two sisters new life will spring forth.
The Canossian nuns have asked Saint Anthony’s Charities to help reconstruct a boarding school in Ainaro, a small inland town some 119 km south of Dili inhabited by 3,000 poor farmers who survive on subsistence agriculture. Before the war the boarding school housed 70 extremely poor girls. Today, it is no longer there. The cost of its reconstruction is approximately $125,000 (£80,000).
For some years now Saint Anthony’s Charities have been financing projects in the diocese of Masaka, Uganda, a huge country region some 140 km south of Kampala, the capital. This commitment derives from the direct contact that the director of Saint Anthony’s Charities, Fr. Luciano Massarotto, has with the bishop of the diocese, Mons. John B. Kaggwa.
Last year, this help was used to construct or rebuild a total of seven schools, which are the only reference point for the many AIDS orphans. But they are not enough: it has been observed that even free education does not eliminate the problem of illiteracy or malnutrition, nor of the many children who are abandoned.
Education has a very low priority in what is one of the poorest nations in the world. Hunger, illness and war are more immediate concerns. One in ten of Uganda’s inhabitants is HIV positive and there are constant conflicts with rebel groups (including the Lord’s Resistance Army, mainly consisting of children kidnapped and indoctrinated by the psychopathic Joseph Kony) leaving thousands of victims. But while it is difficult to find a short-term solution for AIDS or for tribal conflicts, some immediate action can be taken to deal with poverty. This ‘immediate action’ depends on women.
The diocese of Masaka has a population of over 1,200,000 inhabitants, over 90 per cent of whom live in rural areas. They depend almost completely on subsistence agriculture. The only cash-crop is coffee, while bananas, corn, beans, peanuts, cassava and sweet potatoes, cultivated in small quantities using basic methods, are used to feed the local population. Other activities are cattlerearing and fishing. The clerical sector is marginal. Both agriculture and cattle-rearing are activities run almost exclusively by women – who thus guarantee the survival of many families, as well as taking care of the children and the sick. An improvement in the economic situation of the women, therefore, is a huge step forwards in the development of the entire area.
Bishop Kaggwa called the women’s association in the diocese of Masaka and asked them to look into the problem. The proposal they made seemed extremely effective, in spite of its extraordinary simplicity: give fifty women living in ten different rural communities a pregnant heifer. The women could immediately gain an income from selling some of the milk, since there is a large demand for it in the area. They could use the remaining milk to feed their families. Furthermore, the manure produced could be used to improve crops. The project would be complemented by basic training in the techniques of cultivation and cattle rearing. In exchange, the women would give the new-born calves to other women in the association. It is a sort of natural microcredit.
The project which we are presenting to our readers follows the advice given by the women’s association to the letter. It will last for five years, and its domino effects will benefit over 300 women and their families. In order to ensure that the animals reproduce and the chain of solidarity continues, three bulls will be bought to service the cows in the ten parishes.
Saint Anthony’s Charities have been asked to buy the fifty cows and three bulls, provide the expenses for the women’s agricultural training, the transport of the animals, and the administrative expenses. The total cost of the project is around $50,000 (£31,000).
While it will take more than these simple acts of assistance, which we will undertake together this year, to defeat the underdevelopment and poverty which ensnares a huge proportion of the world’s women, we are reaching out to those who are worse off than ourselves. During this Jubilee Year it is a sign of our universal brotherhood: we are all children of the same Father, and we all have the right to live our lives with dignity.