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International Women's Day: Stories of Strength

March 8, 2012 by

In commemoration of International Women’s Day, we would like to present the stories of three strong women who are making a difference in their communities and in the world.

Sister Beatrice: Malawi Orphans’ Big Sister

Lusubilo Orphan Care was founded by Sister Beatrice Chipeta (in blue) to help children and their caregivers. Photo by Karen Kasmauski for CRS

It was the shock of seeing a little boy stealing at a bus station and then singing about his exploits that first inspired Sister Beatrice Chipeta.

It was the mid-90s and the AIDS epidemic was devastating Northern Malawi. In a matter of months in the Karonga district, families with five children in some cases were suddenly caring for 15 to 20 as orphans came to live with their aunts, uncles and grandparents. The families simply couldn’t afford to feed so many extra mouths. Many of the orphans took to the streets.

“If these children can learn to be thieves,” the Rosarian nun thought as she watched the boy, “then they can learn to live a good life and to have good manners.”

Sister, herself an orphan, knew that educating and caring for the orphans was not something she could do alone.

“I had no money and I couldn’t think of anywhere to get assistance,” says Sister Beatrice, “but I had confidence that if the community members organized themselves, we could try and keep the children home by providing care and love.”

With only the seed of an idea, she decided to approach nearby villages. Sister Beatrice limited herself to a round trip she could easily make by foot in a day, a 12.5-mile radius from her home. Donning her bright blue habit and canvas shoes, Sister walked long stretches of Malawi’s dirt roads to meet with village chieftains and cobble together solutions for a problem that was sweeping Karonga.

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Fanny Acosta Huertas: Mom Risks Life for Human Rights

Fanny Acosta Huertas, coordinator of the border program for the Diocese of Ipiales, works in communities where Colombian armed conflict prevents others from keeping displaced people out of harm's way. Photo by Ezra Fieser for CRS

At barely 5 feet tall, with her oversized sky-blue coat dripping off her body and her hair pulled neatly from her face, Fanny Acosta Huertas’ appearance speaks “mother of three” louder than “intrepid human rights crusader.” She is, in fact, both.

Coordinator of the Diocese of Ipiales Social Ministry’s border program, Fanny works near the Colombia-Ecuador border in communities that few of us have heard of, and even fewer have visited.

These small rural villages are caught up in an internal armed conflict in which left-wing guerrilla fighters, paramilitary groups and the Colombian military fight for resources and territory—whether for personal profit or to clear corridors for military advantage or for drug trafficking.

To get to the villages, Fanny must pass through checkpoints guarded by heavily armed guerrilla fighters, negotiate with commanders and avoid land mines.

“Fanny has more experience and knows more about what’s happening in the communities affected by the conflict than perhaps anyone else,” says Father Vicente Legarda, who directs the Diocese of Ipiales Social Ministry. “She does things that few other people would do. She’s a jewel.”

As valuable as she is to the Church, she may be even more valued in the communities she serves. Those who haven’t left the villages are under constant threat and largely feel abandoned.

Rana Massadeh: Jordanian Catholic Reaches Out to Others

Rana Massadeh, left, is a Catholic who volunteers with the Caritas Jordan Volunteer Program in her primarily Muslim nation. This CRS-supported effort encourages young people to actively develop their communities. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

Rana Massadeh was raised Christian in the predominately Muslim nation of Jordan.

“I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and I went to church regularly,” Rana says. “I started to notice there were a lot of Christian families in need, and no one was helping them.”

Casting about for a way to help, Rana found the Caritas Jordan Volunteer Program, launched in 2001 as a pilot effort designed to spread the concept of social and volunteer work among Catholic parishes. Eventually, the program, supported since its inception by Catholic Relief Services, grew to include a network of 30 volunteer committees aimed at involving young people in the development of their communities.

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