Each time an email update from Catholic Relief Services (CRS) pops up in my inbox I feel a little uneasy. I know that on one hand CRS has been able to provide a great deal of assistance (with substantial funding from the U.S. government and backing from the U.S. bishops) to those who need it most. However, I am also aware that CRS often “toes the party line” in that, for example, CRS refuses to provide comprehensive sexuality education as a means to prevent HIV/AIDS. So, when I saw this email with the subject line “Celebrating Women,” I was particularly intrigued and concerned.
The email started with a letter from CRS President, Ken Hackett, which was entitled “Empowering Women to Fight Poverty.” You can access a copy of the letter here: https://crs.org/about/letter/. The letter begins with a salute to Mother’s Day and then states:
“Around the world, women play an important role in providing for their families and doing much of the work that sustains them. In so many societies and cultures, much of the daily burden falls to women, as they work in the fields, do domestic chores and care for children. Many women do not just care for their own children, but often take on responsibility for relatives’ or even neighbors’ children who need loving care to survive.
It is women who keep families intact through the trials of poverty, civil conflict and natural disaster. And it is to women that a disproportionate burden of poverty falls. It is estimated that 70 percent of the 1 billion people living in extreme poverty are women. It is clear that if we do not help women, real change can’t happen.”
I read these paragraphs aloud – incredulous that someone actually wrote this, someone else probably edited it and someone else sent it to the thousands of people that receive the CRS briefings. A thousand questions came to mind. Why is it that the “daily burden” of caring for the family, doing domestic chores and working in the fields falls on women? Why is it the responsibility of the women to keep families intact in times of poverty and conflict? Why is it that on Mother’s Day we are celebrating women when not all women are mothers? Would someone ever write on Father’s Day: “It is clear that if we do not help men, real change can’t happen”? Do women really need “help” of a male-centric organization like CRS, or do we need to end discrimination against women so that women have an equal say in decision-making processes at all levels of life? And lastly, why would an organization like CRS send out a letter that reinforces unequal gender roles and yet again confines women to the private sphere? Did not one person raise a red flag before they pressed “send”?
Ken goes on to explain the different ways CRS has been “empowering” women through programs that “improved their health, increase their access to education and offer them better opportunities to make a living.” It seems to me that his sentiments in paragraphs which explain the work CRS has done in terms of women and microfinance are dwarfed by the prevailing attitude that reduces women to helpless caregivers who need to be rescued. However, perhaps my vision was blurred after reading the introductory paragraphs.
After reflecting on the letter and my visceral reaction to it, I realized that I should not have been that surprised. Afterall, CRS is strongly connected to the institutional Church – a Church that has consistently reinforced these unequal gender roles. However, I still cannot mask my utter disappointment that CRS, our Church, and our world has yet to raise above gender discrimination and still confines women to the private sphere.