Rome (Italy). On 7 December 2022 in Rome, the headquarters of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) presented the research carried out by four religious Congregations:  the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Comboni Missionary Sisters, and the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions  at the forefront of promoting human rights in the Countries of the South of the world, on the theme: “What future for girls after the Pandemic?”

The event was organized by Good Shepherd International Foundation Onlus, VIDES International NGO, Cambodian Foundation in the World, and RNDM International Mission Development Office, with the collaboration of UISG International Union of Superiors General. These are four international organizations based in Rome, which work to support religious missions in more than 80 Countries around the world, to promote the social and economic development of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities through the implementation of cooperation and community development programs and advocacy, actions aimed at promoting human rights.

Present in the room were the Superior General of the FMA Institute, Mother Chiara Cazzuola; Sr. Runita Borja, Councilor of the Youth Ministry Sector and other Councilors; the Mother General Emeritus, Sr. Yvonne Reungoat; and Sr. Annecie Audate, FMA, Director General of VIDES International.

As of March 2020, when the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is estimated that more than 111 million students have dropped out of school in developing Countries. The negative effects of the pandemic have affected people to varying degrees, with greater repercussions on the social groups and on the most vulnerable Countries. It has been estimated that closures and restrictions have forced millions of girls in less developed Countries out of school and many of them have never returned, leaving them exposed to the risk of child marriage and other forms of violence and exploitation.

During this unprecedented critical situation, these four international women’s religious Congregations continued in their mission to protect the weakest, accompany them, and guarantee the rights especially of women, young people, and children.

The report How are the Girls? A study on the Rights of Girls in six countries during the Covid-19 Pandemic, presented during the event, is the result of this constant commitment to reduce the social and educational impact of the pandemic, especially on girls aged 10 to 20. For one year, the four congregations collected data in six countries to study the effects of the impact of Covid-19 on the living conditions and respect for the rights of girls in some of the most vulnerable communities in Kenya, South Sudan, India, Nepal, Ecuador, and Peru.

The results that emerged from the research, coordinated by a team of researchers from the La Sapienza University of Rome, led by Prof. Maurizio Franzini, Director of the Doctoral School in Economics of La Sapienza, and supported by the expert on girls’ rights, Dr. Mathilde Gutzenberger, will be fundamental in guiding the future plans of the religious Congregations involved above all in the field of education and the protection and promotion of the rights of children and girls.

This work is an important first step towards the creation of a permanent and systematic observatory to monitor the situation of the most vulnerable and often marginalized sections of the population, such as girls, and to bring important humanitarian issues to the attention of society. The objective of the initiative is in fact also to develop and strengthen joint advocacy actions between women’s Congregations in the field of education and the protection of girls, in order to increase their influence on public policies.

Present online, Sr. Alessandra Smerilli, FMA, Secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, expressed satisfaction with the research and above all with the network that has been created, made up of “passionate people who have worked together”, a sign of a joint commitment between Congregations, also significant for her Dicastery. Sr. Alessandra underlined the importance of “starting with research in which the data is shown”, as “there can be no programming and effective action without a systematic and rigorous data collection base”. She also highlighted how networking is essential for making visible what would otherwise remain invisible.

The next steps passi

At the conclusion of the event, Elisabetta Murgia, member of the project coordination Team and Program Manager of VIDES International, underlined that among the many needs that emerged during the data collection phase, two were particularly relevant and significant: the lack of access to technology and the increasingly widespread problems related to mental health.

For this reason, the four Congregations have decided to continue collaborating with each other to give concrete answers to girls around these two needs that have emerged forcefully in the aftermath of the pandemic. Among the next steps that have been identified in the six countries are: a new qualitative study on the digital divide,  the existing gap between those who have effective access to information technologies and those who do not,  the updating of technological equipment, formation on the safe use of online platforms, and the design of a program for girls’ mental health.

Collaborations such as these make visible and encourage work in synodality, open the horizons to new ways for the protection and empowerment of girls, and value the work of many religious and organizations that daily spend themselves for the rights of the most vulnerable.

Sources: VIDES and UISG

Video: The voices of the girls

Video: Sisters and coordinators

Summary of the research