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Giving women the opportunities to thrive



This week as part of International Women’s Day we were asked to challenge gender inequality in our day-to-day lives, to call out discrimination and to demand real change. We were asked to challenge gender biases not just in others, but also in ourselves, because we all play a part in creating and sustaining the cultural norms that influence or limit women’s equality.

Main image: Halima, a community leader in Bangladesh. (Richard Wainwright/Caritas)

As a female CEO of an international development NGO, I see the challenges women face both here and across the world. In our office, I’m proud to say that both men and women rush off to pick up their kids from school, and women are in the rooms where decisions are made at every level of the organisation. Just as we do in our projects internationally, we try to create an environment where expectations aren’t set by gender but rather by interests, talents and passions. This is difficult work, but the onus is on all of us to keep having the hard conversations that allow us to re-imagine a world in which women’s equality is a reality.

Empowering women and girls is also one of the most cost-effective and sustainable ways to promote positive change in a community, whether here in Australia or overseas. When girls are supported to receive an education, they are more able to earn an income for themselves and their family. The children of educated women have better health outcomes, are more likely to go to and stay in school, and are more likely to have access to a diverse range of food. These impacts will last long after development organisations have left.

Over the course of my career I have also seen countless women rise up in their communities and claim their space, despite significant challenges. Through our projects across the world, I am regularly reminded that women have always led and for that matter, will always lead. Whether by founding a local savings group or by setting up small business to support their families, women have always challenged social norms. No matter how great the obstacles and challenges in their way, women will find a way.

Many of the women in our programs are making enormous strides in their communities. In our annual Lenten fundraising appeal, Project Compassion, two women in particular stand out: Oliva from Tanzania and Halima from Myanmar, for their drive not just to challenge gender bias, but to work with other women to improve their lives. Both women are leaders.

Oliva is a natural entrepreneur, building a small kiosk in her community in Tanzania from the ground up, despite never having had the opportunity to go to school. The opportunity to attend literacy and numeracy classes provided her the skills to really make her business a success. But she did not stop there. A leader in her community, Oliva set up a classroom at home to teach her neighbours and she now aims to become a pastor and run for leadership in the next local election.


'In the toughest of circumstances, these women find a way. They find a way to support themselves. They find a way to support their families. They find a way to support their communities.'


Another example of a woman who chose to challenge gender inequality is Halima, widowed at just 21, who fled escalating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2017 and arrived at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp with nothing. With the support of Caritas Bangladesh, Halima received a shelter and cooking equipment so that she could feed her family. She then participated in hygiene and sanitation training and took on the role of community trainer herself, organising the cleaning of washrooms, wells and toilets. Halima’s training became all the more invaluable as the COVID-19 pandemic struck — when safe hygiene and preventative measures suddenly became lifesaving and her knowledge helped those around her to keep safe.

I can think of no better inspiration for this year’s International Women’s Day than Halima or Oliva who challenge gender inequality in their communities. In the toughest of circumstances, these women find a way. They find a way to support themselves. They find a way to support their families. They find a way to support their communities. They live with courage and conviction every day.

Women empowering and supporting other women to thrive, both in our own communities and in communities overseas, is what drives me daily in my work. The way we treat other women here in Australia is the foundation for how we can support women internationally to achieve gender equality. We have a responsibility, not just to the women around us, but to women everywhere to provide support and compassion, so that all women can reach their full potential. We need to live every day with courage and conviction like Oliva and Jamila.



Kirsty RobertsonKirsty Robertson is the CEO of Caritas Australia, the international aid and development agency of the Catholic Church in Australia.

You can support women like Oliva and Jamila through the Caritas Lenten fundraising appeal, Project Compassion, at lent. 

Main image: Halima, a community leader in Bangladesh. (Richard Wainwright/Caritas)


Topic tags: Kirsty Robertson, IWD, Caritas Australia, gender, International Women's Day



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Existing comments

From St Oscar Romero "Aspire not to have more, but to be more". This is the inspirational verse on Caritas' Project Compassion for Lent fund-raising. Faced with oppression, in rich and poor nations alike, women can overcome. Today I watched the Saudi Arabian film "Wadjda" about a 10 year old girl who struggles through oppression to gain independence. In her case, her empowerment is gained from the (hard-won) purchase of a shiny new bicycle so she can race against her best friend Abdullah. Well done, SBS, for selection of movies for International Women's Day.

Pam | 09 March 2021  

Kirsty (I love and respect 'real' women) Your article reads well but you left out the negative results of this empowerment: soaring abortions, street 'lynch mobs' predominantly female, the Green religion and its madness all resulting from empowerment an d often led by ex-catholic women. I have lost all respect for this type of empowered-woman. I could write you a book but 200 words limits me. Be objective.

Kevin Smith | 11 March 2021  

Applause. The opening paragraphs had me worried but the article took the Road less travelled to celebrate women's achievements despite previous adversity... According to Frost each path ends in a sigh, this one was welcomed.

ray | 11 March 2021  

It’s good to hear real stories about disadvantaged women like Oliva and Halima being empowered to improve themselves and their communities. Far too often spurious agendas are dressed up with euphemistic titles like the US Equality Act, which Kara Dansky of the Women’s Human Rights Campaign says, “is an unmitigated disaster for women and girls”, and which the Conference of Catholic Bishops says “would discriminate against people of faith”. The Catholic priest and philosopher Romano Guardini once noted: “Too often ‘justice’ is used as a mask for quite different things.” So it’s pleasing to see Caritas helping truly disadvantaged women in a practical way.

Ross Howard | 12 March 2021  

Thanks Kirsty, comparing the mess that I make of any project with the smoothness with which women of my acquaintance get things done, I can only agree. Coincidentally, NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof cited the contributions of Bangladeshi women to Bangladesh's progress over several decades in his commentary on Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/10/opinion/biden-child-poverty-bangladesh.html).

David Arthur | 12 March 2021  

Fine words Kirsty and noble aspirations. But until Rome, the Vatican and Pope Francis unequivocally adopts the UDHR for women then the situation for women (and the laity) in this church is hopeless. While women are content to be dis-empowered second class citizens in this arcane fossil of a church,ostensibly ruled by a cohort of indifferent scarlet hats in Rome and their Vatican appointed Australian Bishops, the status quo, the child abuse, the clericalism, the rampant financial abuse, the grab for titles, the corruption will continue unchecked and unabated.

Francis Armstrong | 12 March 2021  

Kevin: ‘Be objective.’ This is a context-specific article about women in the developing world trying to do something about their poverty. They are a long way in thinking from privileged urbanites like Hillary Clinton. The scope for female autonomy and initiative even within a traditional milieu is vast if Proverbs 31:10-31 is true (which it is, being a piece of inspired text addressed to the women of its time and now).

roy chen yee | 12 March 2021  

"Empowering" women who in their very creation and purpose are empowered beyond the mere male is but another great fallacy of the modern world. One of the fascinating things about so-called empowerment in our society is the public corruption reported almost weekly in our news media amongst "empowered' women in numbers that make the males look like amateurs.

john frawley | 14 March 2021  

John Frawley: 'empowerment in our society.' Never mind our society. This article is about theirs. The work isn’t done until Halimas or Olivas routinely have daughters who are heart surgeons. Or, perhaps, not done even then. Of course, once they get into high heels, those Third World elite daughters could turn into Hillary Clintons. However --- ‘males look like amateurs’:--- men probably have had a head start in managing decisions with a serious moral impact. Seeing you seem to be a ‘heartie’ of the correct vintage, have you met the fellow who got you all off the starting blocks? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih .gov/pmc/articles/PMC1121917/ Notice that it was only, for a very practical reason, a white heart which was in peril of being white-anted before the brain stem died.

roy chen yee | 15 March 2021  

Good morning, Roy. Isn't it truly amazing that the Creator clearly made yet another momentous mistake by designing human beings with different genders and different functions that fitted in with this crazy plan of delegating his future workload of creation to the union of equal parts of each with the inherited gender dependent entirely on the male. Just think of how much better it would have been if human beings were all the same and grew on trees without any gender defining characteristics. Thank goodness the Creator didn't bugger up the universe as badly as he did the human being or we would all be constantly bombarded by meteorite storms!

john frawley | 17 March 2021  

John Frawley: ‘designing…beings’ from first principles. Why have a supervising species? The planet can flourish without one. All that happens is that it becomes curated for the benefit of the species. 1. The species is, therefore, a gift from God to itself and the planet is meant by God to revolve around the species for its sustenance and enchantment. 2. To pursue enchantment requires a dry surface and the non-interference of a thin atmosphere. It’s difficult to build objects when immersed in the heavy surrounding of a fluid or gas, or to accumulate the intermediate materials. It’s difficult to write or store knowledge in wet. Electricity, the same energy within the species, can’t be used when the users are immersed in conductive environment. 3. ‘Female’ is designated the species member that stores the young inside its body or produces ‘eggs’ for external fertilisation. ‘Male’ is designated the species member which produces ‘sperm’. 4. Females and males exist because enchantment requires the pre-existence of genetic diversities which can be mixed and matched in unpredictable (but not to God) ways to produce unpredictably interesting combinations of people to produce unpredictably interesting combinations of enchantments. 5. So, here we are.

roy chen yee | 18 March 2021  

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