The Vatican’s recent document Dignitas infinita touches on some of the many instances, in cultures throughout the world, where women’s dignity is ignored, distorted or abused. ‘While the equal dignity of women may be recognised in words,’ it says, ‘the inequalities between women and men in some countries remain very serious. Even in the most developed and democratic countries, the concrete social reality testifies to the fact that women are often not accorded the same dignity as men.’

Quoting Pope Francis, the declaration points out that often ‘we say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story.’

It is a theme taken up by the Holy Father in his video prayer message for April, released by the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network.

‘Let us respect women. Let us respect their dignity, their basic rights. And if we don’t, our society will not progress,’ the Pope says in the video as he reflects on his prayer intention for the month of April: ‘Let us pray that the dignity and worth of women be recognised in every culture and for an end to the discrimination they face in various parts of the world.’

There are countries where women are forbidden to access aid, open a business or go to school ... Let us not deprive women of their voice.

‘In many parts of the world,’ the Pope observes in the video, ‘women are treated like the first thing to get rid of.’

‘There are countries where women are forbidden to access aid, open a business or go to school,’ he says, mentioning other laws and practices—such as genital mutilation and the forcing of women to dress in certain ways—that further serve to exploit and marginalise women.

‘Let us not deprive women of their voice,’ the Pope says. ‘Governments need to commit to eliminate discriminatory laws everywhere and to work toward guaranteeing women’s human rights.’

Now in its 60th year, Caritas Australia—a Catholic humanitarian organisation—places a strong emphasis on honouring the bravery and contributions of women, and promoting their rights to education, food security, safety and economic opportunity. Below are some of the ways in which Caritas is working to uphold the dignity of women of all ages and backgrounds.

Laxmi’s story

Laxmi lives with her mother and siblings in Jajarkot, one of the least developed districts in the remote Karnali province, with almost half of the population living below the poverty line.

Tragedy struck when Laxmi was 10 years old. Her father, who worked hard to pay for his children’s education, passed away. Laxmi was devastated. She used to love to go to school, but for the first time she stopped attending her classes.

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Laxmi using a water tap that she advocated to have installed at her old school in Jajarkot district in western Nepal. (Photo: Richard Wainwright/Caritas Australia.)

Before her father’s passing, Laxmi joined a child’s club at her school that was run with the support of Caritas Nepal, through the Nepal Livelihoods and Resilience Program. Child’s clubs support students to develop their speaking, writing and leadership skills through extracurricular activities.

Since 2018, Caritas Nepal has supported more than 5,000 children through the child’s clubs.

Laxmi has excelled at school since joining the child’s club. But her proudest achievement is something that will have a lasting impact for future generations.

Now I know where to speak, what to speak. However big the gathering might be, I’m not afraid to speak.

Since clean water has long been an issue at Laxmi’s school, she and her child club members discussed the need to build multiple water taps so that all students can access clean drinking water. They lobbied the school administration, the ward office and the municipality office until they eventually agreed to construct a series of water taps on the school grounds.

‘Now I know where to speak, what to speak. However big the gathering might be, I’m not afraid to speak,’ Laxmi says.

Laxmi is now working towards her dream of becoming a civil engineer, but continues to be involved in the child’s club, serving as an adviser and mentoring the next generation of young leaders at her old school.

‘Even though I don’t study in this school now, I have to show them what I did with my talent, how I changed, teach them what they can do. I want them to learn from the things I did,’ she says.

Priscilla’s story

Priscilla lives in the Hwange district in Zimbabwe with her husband, Charles, and her two grandsons. In Hwange, the impacts of climate change are exacerbating food insecurity in vulnerable communities, with erratic rainfall patterns, prolonged dry spells, poor agricultural soils and high temperatures in the region.

‘We had plenty of rains at first but as time has gone by, the rains have become erratic and hence the yields have been reduced,’ Priscilla says.

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Priscilla inspects her drought-affected fields of millet next to her home in Hwange district, north-western Zimbabwe. (Photo: Richard Wainwright/Caritas Australia.)

Priscilla joined the Zimbabwe Integrated Community Development Program, funded by Caritas Australia and implemented by its partner Caritas Hwange. Through the program, Priscilla and her community learnt conservation farming techniques to grow drought-resistant crops to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

In her first year of practising conservation farming, Priscilla was able to produce a bumper harvest.

Priscilla also used the funds from her harvest to start poultry farming, allowing her to sell eggs to pay for her grandchildren’s school fees, books and stationery. The poultry farming provides a safety net for Priscilla and her family during times of hardship, like the current drought.

Today we have knowledge and skills that we didn’t have before and are able to use to earn a living.

In addition to conservation farming training, Caritas Hwange has helped Priscilla boost her food security through a range of activities, including participating in a community nutrition garden to grow and sell vegetables, and rehabilitating the dip tanks to keep her cows healthy and reduce the prevalence of tick-borne diseases. Caritas Hwange also rehabilitated a community dam near Priscilla’s house, so cattle can have access to water all year.

While the situation in Zimbabwe and across eastern Africa remains dire, the work of Caritas Hwange means that Priscilla can learn the techniques, tools and resources she needs to build resilience and support her family during this current food crisis.

‘We are indeed grateful to Caritas Hwange for the knowledge,’ Priscilla says. ‘Today we have knowledge and skills that we didn’t have before and are able to use to earn a living.’

Shaniella’s story

Shaniella grew up in a remote village in the Solomon Islands in a province that has limited educational and job opportunities—and one of the country’s highest poverty rates.

After leaving school, she decided to move closer to the capital city, Honiara, to study hospitality and tourism.

However, her vocational training school was hit by a landslide and cyclone in quick succession, destroying its water supply system and the vegetable garden that it relies on for food. The landslide destroyed the school’s main source of water, damaged school buildings and devastated the garden which the school relies on for food.

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Shaniella in a classroom at her rural training centre near the capital Honiara, Solomon Islands. (Photo: Neil Nuia/Caritas Australia.)

Shaniella recalls being at school on the day of the landslide. ‘I was devastated because I had no knowledge of what to do and where to get information,’ she says. ‘I saw students in the school panic. I could hear people’s screaming, crying and shouting, as if the world is going to end.’

Caritas Australia Solomon Islands (CASI) was able to help the school to install eight water tanks, restoring students’ access to clean drinking water. The tanks also supply water to nearby schools, health centres and the wider community.

CASI also supported the school by providing it with improved planting materials, 200 chickens, and training in agricultural skills and poultry management, to help it to boost its food security.

To ensure that the school is better prepared to respond to future disasters, CASI ran Disaster Risk Reduction training workshops, raising awareness about evacuation procedures and how to respond during an emergency. It also provided additional support when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, by helping the school to improve hygiene practices to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Shaniella can now complete her job skills training, and the school has enough food and water for its students. She says she also feels better prepared when disaster strikes and can share her knowledge with her community back home. 

Organisations like Caritas Australia enable women to have a voice and contribute to the betterment of their lives and wider society. Learn more about how to support the work of Caritas and long-term programs that provide the food security, clean water and education opportunities necessary for brave women like Laxmi, Priscilla and Shaniella to thrive.

Banner image: Laxmi is now an adviser at her child’s club, helping to nurture the next generation of leaders. (Photo: Richard Wainwright/Caritas Australia.)