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Speakers: Faith-based organizations play key role in promoting women as leaders

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Anahit Mkhoyan, executive director of Caritas Georgia, and Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, participate in a March 19, 2024, panel discussion at the United Nations on "The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Promoting Women's Leadership." It was an official side event of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and was sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and Caritas Internationalis. (OSV News photo/Caritas Internationalis)

NEW YORK — Anahit Mkhoyan, executive director of Caritas Georgia, understands that working for a Catholic humanitarian organization means so much more than providing aid. Hers is a mission of empathy, knowledge and love.

Caritas Georgia — an agency of Caritas Internationalis, a global Catholic relief organization — offers care to vulnerable populations in Georgia and is a longtime partner of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, or CNEWA, a papal agency that supports the work of the Eastern churches. “Caritas,” meaning “love,” is unto itself a guiding principle.

“It was established in order to deliver love, not only assistance, to people,” she said in an interview with CNEWA, which has its headquarters in New York.

Mkhoyan was one of five panelists who spoke at “Fragile Contexts, Strong Women: The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Promoting Women’s Leadership,” an official side event of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and Caritas Internationalis March 19.

Other panelists included Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations; Kerry Robinson, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA; Helen Kezie-Nwoha, executive director of the Women’s International Peace Center; and Alistair Dutton, secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis. The event was moderated by Brenda Arakaza, president of the national council of Development and Peace — Caritas Canada.

“As a faith-based civil society organization working in fragile contexts, Caritas Internationalis has a special responsibility toward ensuring that women are afforded meaningful participation in decision-making spaces relating to peace, security and humanitarian crises,” said Stephanie MacGillivray, the officer promoting women’s leadership for Caritas Internationalis and coordinator of the event.

The breadth of Caritas’ work from grassroots to global levels allows for the organization to “effectively address the feminization of poverty through projects and programs which understand and concretely address the needs of women, girls and communities as a whole,” she said.

In the conversation surrounding equality and women’s empowerment, Mkhoyan highlighted the need for “balance and parallel involvement” across five key dimensions: the legal environment, organizations and companies, educational institutions, family and individual, and society and culture. It is essential to begin work in these areas “immediately and parallelly” to ensure the change has a long-term effect, she said.

Her intervention highlighted the necessity of cultural and contextual awareness when effecting this social transformation, so it does not contradict cultural values or practices and remains sustainable.

“We need to accept the fact that locals are the masters of their reality,” she said at the event.

“If we do not adapt to the local context and culture, we can bring harm without knowing it.”

She explained that Caritas Georgia forms local staff to ensure the agency’s mission is conscious of “cultural threads.” Without this sensitivity, she said, social change may be viewed as “a virus” that is ultimately “rejected” by the community. She promotes gradual, sustainable change as the solution.

Mkhoyan’s approach of working across five dimensions simultaneously aims to gradually and sustainably shift values that are discriminatory, biased or violent, so that equality eventually becomes the accepted cultural norm.

In the context of faith-based organizations, she said internal policies and standards should function as “prototypes” for broader society.

This idea is one of the reasons Caritas Georgia ensures gender balance among its staff and invests in professional development for both women and men.

“We talk about developing women in leadership positions, but we are not preparing men to take the social work positions, to take the teacher positions (traditionally held by women). At the end of the day, it all remains on (women’s) shoulders again,” she said, stressing the importance of striking a balance and making professional opportunities equally available for all.

Mkhoyan hopes men and women, boys and girls, may enjoy the same rights and opportunities, creating a positive, lasting cycle. Rather than simply “encouraging women’s participation,” she expressed the need to “build an environment which embraces women’s participation.”

“It’s about living together. It’s about creating a future together,” she said.

Archbishop Caccia shared Mkhoyan’s sentiment in his remarks.

“I see a great future if we decide to work together, because we are Catholic, and Catholic means global, universal,” he said.

He highlighted the notion of “feminine genius,” which is encapsulated by the “profound and unique” gifts offered by women.

Archbishop Caccia also expressed concern that women may turn away from the church or the faith because “it seems the environment is not for them.” But Jesus in the Gospels presents “a different picture.”

“The church without women is nonexistent,” he said. “We need each other.”