CRS: Using Mother’s Day to Confine Women to the Private Sphere

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: 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.

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About Kate Childs Graham

Kate Braggs has recently completed her graduate studies in Gender and Peacebuilding at the University for Peace in San Jose, Costa Rica. In her graduate studies, she focused on the intersection of gender, sexuality, and religion in a human rights context. Currently, Kate is working as Justice Advocate for a community of women religious. She is also member of the Call to Action Next Generation Leadership Team, the Women's Ordination Conference Board, and a small faithsharing community in the Washington DC metro area.

3 thoughts on “CRS: Using Mother’s Day to Confine Women to the Private Sphere

  1. Thanks for your thoughts! And thanks for bringing the letter to other’s attention. I have to say I didn’t have the same reaction though. Could it be possible that this is a difference between addressing the symptoms as opposed to the cause? I certainly agree that this is the systematic effects of oppression and discrimination and all kinds of other categories of hate upon women. But I also see the need to address the here and now. Should the burden being on women to improve their situations when they are the ones who have dumped upon? No. They didn’t cause these issues, its other’s sexism that did. This is not unlike issues in racism. In the meantime, things like the small business loans and such are huge helps. I don’t think we can wait for governments, families, cultures, etc. to become enlightened. Women and children are suffering now. Now, maybe there also needs to be some programs addressing the sexism. And CRS should hire you to spearhead them!

  2. First of all, I have to say I’m really thrilled to be part of this discussion; how lovely to have a place where feminist and Catholic discourse happen side-by-side!

    My initial reaction was different from yours as well; I felt glad that the letter from the CRS was addressing what are real concerns regarding women. While we certainly shouldn’t be confined to the private sphere, we do shoulder most of the burden when it comes to daily and family life, and we are disproportionately affected by poverty. So while I think the Church does need to take part in providing relief and improving life for women right now, I think what really is at issue here is a total negligence of causation. It’s not enough to provide charity — we must ask WHY women are disproportionately affected by poverty (and violence, AIDS, depression, etc). And to ask the why, the Church has to acknowledge its own role in barring women from positions of authority where they could enact wider-spreading change than charities ever could. It also has to acknowledge that when women have little or no control over their reproductive or sexual lives, they often do end up impoverished and oppressed. And we know the Church’s stance on reproductive rights. To me the real fault seems to come from using the symptoms to distract people from, and hold the Church — and other powerful institutions — harmless for, the causes.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  3. Kate-

    I’m so pleased I finally got to read this after hearing you talk about it! I share your frustration (I think) … while I think that the CRS letter was stating the current state of affairs for many women in the world, it does little to challenge the injustice of women having the primary burden of keeping families together, of infantalizing women (especially adult women!) as being in need of rescue. I especially liked your reference to “helpless caregivers in need of rescue” … I wonder if anyone at CRS saw the irony in this way of thinking!

    However, even though the e-mail bungled it, I think it’s very important to remember the key role the status of women plays in the overall development of communities.

    I also agree that they missed the mark on identifying “women” with “mothers” … it seems the “women” theme would have been more appropriate on March 8. :) But when was the last time a Catholic organization (outside of a women’s religious community) celebrated International Women’s Day?


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