Panelists from Five Continents Discuss Women’s Empowerment

Sister Dusty Farnan, UN NGO Representative

April 1, 2021, New York, New York – Women are strong, but they face obstacles to full equality with men, such gender violence and the lack of support from their cultures. In their efforts for equality, women seek to improve the lives of their entire community: women, men, and children.

That was part of the message of women from five continents who spoke on a panel sponsored by the Dominican Leadership Conference, which represents the worldwide Dominican family at the United Nations. Collaborating in this event were Domuni Universitas, an international online Dominican University, and Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP, United Nations NGO representative of the Dominican Sisters Conference. Sister Durstyne is involved with the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. 

The webinar, “Changing our Narrative One Story at a Time,” was held on March 26, 2021, the final day of the 2021 World Conference on Women. The panel was presented in English, French, Spanish, and Aramaic, with instantaneous translations available in the preferred language of each webinar participant.

The panel discussion was facilitated by Carly Wood, a native of the United Kingdom and now living in Norway. She is Head of English Studies at Domuni Universitas.

Some of the members of the panel shown are, clockwise from top left, Carly Wood, Facilitator; Dr. Nontando Hadebe from Africa; Kateri Mitchell, a Native American; and Sister Manjula Tuscano from India.

Panelist Presentations

Dr. Nontando Hadebe, of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, emphasized the basic strength of African women, but noted that they face obstacles to full equality with men. 

“I will use the icon identified with African women: the three legged pot,” Dr. Hadebe said. The three legs represent national constitutions, culture, and religion. “A woman might receive all the opportunities through the constitution but when she enters into the cultural place, she is required to take a subordinate position to men – and this happens also in some religions,” she explained.

Dr. Hadebe said the Circle of Concerned African American Theologians uses the methodology of story-telling in its efforts to empower women. “We don’t use a text book but work with women’s stories on the way to liberation, to draw aspects of culture and religion that affirm women,” she said. The women’s stories point to patterns such as violence against women – even in their own homes – and to interpretations of Scripture that marginalize and subordinate women. 

While affirming the value and dignity of women, Dr. Hadebe said, the theology of the Circle affirms the dignity of all people. “Together we have created a religion or a culture that has had a negative impact on women, so together we can create a new story,” she said.

Dr. Marie Monnet, an attorney and Vice-Rector of Domuni Universitas, spoke of the leadership of women and the difficulty that some men have in accepting it. “What happens is not the realization of power but the perception of power, because humanity has not yet gotten used to the power of women,” she explained. “To be subordinate to another man for a man is not difficult, but for a man to be subordinate to a woman is raising questions.”

Dr. Monnet spoke of a feminine model of leadership based on women’s status and dignity as daughters of God. God is manifested in women as well as men, she said. She encouraged a leadership model for both women and men based on Jesus’ call in Matthew 20, that those who have power over others should be their servants.

Attorney Laura Elizabeth Díaz Gómez – a member of an organization of lawyers working with indigenous women in Chiapas, Mexico – spoke of her organization’s efforts to defend the rights of women and to train them to defend their own rights.  

“It is important for us to share our experience of struggle in the work we are doing,” she said. The women have been organized as “weavers, heads of family, mothers, daughters, granddaughters, professionals, and transmitters of success from generation to generation.” With those efforts, she said, the women are ultimately recognized as members of a community who participate in decision-making processes.

Sister Manjula Tuscano, an attorney and social worker, focused on her work in India. “My message to everyone when I go to the villages is that we are all equals, all of us walking together,” she said. In India, her work is to help create families in which men and women are equals. 

Sister Manjula said she is working toward the day when women are seen as equal to men. “They have the right to live in human dignity and they have the right to live in equality,” she noted.

Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Mohawk woman from North America, gave a message of hope for women and for the world, in spite of the damage caused to the Indigenous peoples of North America with the arrival of colonists from Europe. 

“We cannot allow our past hurts to destroy our inner spirit,” Sister Kateri said. “We need to move forward beyond the dark sky and find hope in a new sunrise.” She noted women’s special role as life givers, and their sacred relationship to Mother Earth. Women today are growing stronger and stronger in their healing efforts for themselves, their children, and their families, she said.

“Our women are discovering their own truth and self-worth,” Sister Kateri said. She compared this new awareness to seeds planted in Mother Earth and nurtured, creating new life. “One sees new life coming above the ground, and soon stems, leaves, and blossoms are ready to flower – soon a whole garden and then beautiful fields of blossoms ready for the world to see a new generation of women…with a strong inner spirit who are ready to share and fulfill their purpose in life.”

Women and Men Working Together

During a question and answer session, panelists discussed the role men can play in fostering a culture of equality of women and men. Dr. Hadebe noted men’s organizations are working with the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, helping men to become more aware of the different experiences of men and women. 

“It’s an ongoing process,” she said. “I have a friend who is in a wheelchair. For me to understand my privilege as an able-bodied person, I need to listen to her about her disabilities and how people perceive her.” 

In the same way, she encouraged men to listen to women about their experiences, but also to help other men to understand women’s experiences. “Become an ally of women or stand up for women when a predator’s statement is made,” she said.

Dr. Monnet encouraged men to “share in their responsibilities of the world, so that women are part of history and become examples to little girls, the women of tomorrow.”  

Sister Durstyne concluded the webinar with gratitude for all who were involved. “You have widened the space for women,” she said. “We call on our sisters throughout the world to be brave.”