Four groups of women religious present study on girls’ rights during pandemic
By Sr Bernadette Reis, fsp
The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco, the Comboni Missionary Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions -- these four congregations of women religious have been collaborating on a study entitled How are the girls?
The study regards how Covid affected the lives and rights of girls in 6 different countries: Ecuador, Peru, South Sudan, Kenya, India and Nepal. Together, these congregations presented their findings at the headquarters of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in Rome on Wednesday. Others joined the event online from around the world. Carol Glatz, Senior Correspondent for Catholic News Service, was on hand to to moderate the event.
Sr. Patricia Murray, UISG Executive Secretary, explained the importance of the study, noting that it shows us the future and how we need to respond. “We are getting a snapshot of the world” by the information the girls’ reported regarding their experience during covid. Although Covid has impacted everyone, she said it has had more of an impact on young people, particularly young girls.
Background to the study
Cristina Duranti, a member of the Project Core Team and Good Shepherd International Foundation Director, provided some context regarding the ministries of the four congregations, which, she reported, did not shut down during Covid. Rather, many projects were adapted to the changing situation, sometimes overcoming hurdles they never thought possible. This included not only moving some projects online, but others, such as food distribution, went door-to-door.
She explained that the four Congregations then decided to join together to conduct an “unprecedented” study to discover how the rights of girls had been hampered. They chose the 6 countries and formed a research team to obtain both quantitative and qualitative data.
Sr. Orietta Pozzi, also a member of the Project Core Team and the Comboni World-wide Foundation, highlighted how the voices of the girls who participated in the study is invaluable in order to approach policy makers and to find adequate ways to respond. With this study in hand, and specifically because of the synergy created by the four congregations, she hopes that the work will truly bear tangible fruits.
Academic research team
Rama Dasi Mariani, a member of the Research Coordination Team member and Postdoctoral Researcher in Economics University of Rome “Tor Vergata” and Centre for Economic and International Studies (CEIS), Italy, presented some of the results of the study. A notable reality regarding education emerged in the study, she said, showing that girls had less access to education in on-line formats than boys, and that their workload increased more. 35% of girls, she said, reported experiencing “serious hardship” during the pandemic. However, there was a lower incidence of “hardship” reported by girls who were able to continue frequenting school, demonstrating a correlation between access to education in a school and overall well-being.
Mathilde Gutzenberger, also a member of the Research Coordination Team member and Senior expert in Gender and Children Rights, picked up the discussion. Among the specific areas that emerged in the study were: learning loss, poverty and food crisis, mental health issues, increased violence (including sexual and domestic) and higher levels of child marriage and teenage pregnancy. Ms Gutzenberger also indicated that incidences of prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation became an issue, primarily in cases where parents lost their jobs. Many girls reported feelings of sadness and worry, increased mental and economic stress, which will have a lasting effect. This raises the question about how to provide help, especially when these types of statistics do not often find their way into the hands of policy makers. “Returning to school was a relief for many girls”, she reported. “What we have found is that education is protection. That is what the girls have told us.” Over all, nothing new has been discovered, Ms Gutzenberger concluded. But the pre-existing problems and inequalities were exacerbated, thus worsening whatever situation a girl found herself in. This study, she said, will therefore be helpful in being able to foresee what may happen in future epidemics.
Maurizio Franzini, Professor of Economic Policy and Director of the PhD School in Economics at University of Rome "La Sapienza", Italy emphasized that one of the inequalities that emerged from the study girls have less access to technology. Other factors he said emerged, such as an increase in child marriage, are indicators of other contributing factors that need addressing. “One crucial point”, he explained, “is that we need more than one actor…who can collaborate among themselves. We need to know what is happening when it is happening, and indicate that in the future, “a monitoring system will be extremely important“.
Maria D’Onofrio, Advocacy Officer IIMA & VIDES Human Rights Office, Geneva, spoke about the report from a human rights perspective. “No advocacy action can be meaningful if it is not grounded in local reality“, she said. Some results from the study have been presented at the political level in several countries where the study took place, which has led to the adoption of several measures. The study also “opened new windows and opportunities, including better human rights implementation, participation and the empowerment of local actors“, Ms D’Onofrio said.
Sr. Winifred Doherty, Main Representative to UN, Good Shepherd International Justice and Peace Office, New York gave voice to the recommendations that came from the girls’ surveyed. Sex education and care for pregnant teenagers are among these recommendations. The qualitative and quantitative analysis the “timely” report provides will be helpful in approaching policy makers, she explained. The report has made otherwise “invisible” girls, visible, Sr Winifred continued. Girls, she said, are well-informed, and look forward to the time when what is available to some of their peers is available to all girls. Sr Winifred also noted that while it is important to advocate for girls it is also important to empower girls to represent themselves. Lastly, she shared that for her personally, “a big outcome shows that intervention with girls at the grassroots through intervention and social services does make a difference”.
Making the invisible visible
Connecting virtually, Sr. Alessandra Smerilli, FMA, Secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said that the research presented will be very important for her Dicastery. She also emphasized that networking very often makes things happen that would otherwise remain something abstract. Departing from actual data, she said, is also necessary not only to understand what is happening, but also to make visible what would otherwise remain invisible.
Concluding the event, Elisabetta Murgia, member of the Project Core Team and Program Manager VIDES , shared that two particularly relevant needs identified in the study are lack of access to technology and mental health issues. Therefore, the four congregations have decided to continue collaborating with each other to address these two needs. Among the next steps that have been identified in the same 6 countries are: new qualitative study on the digital divide, upgrading technological equipment, provide training on the safe use of online platforms and design a program for girls’ mental health.