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Small, Personal Gatherings Replace UN Meeting

Bridget Goldbeck and Roberta White found hope for the future in the stories of Lyria and Marlene from Mozambique and Noella from Uganda. They met the young women in small group discussions that replaced the cancelled United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.


Despite the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York City being cancelled because of COVID-19, BVMs listened, learned, and shared their life and mission. Here are their reflections on the trip:

Roberta White

“To be born a girl in Mexico these days is a death sentence!” This is how Carolina began sharing her story. Her opening words stabbed my heart with sorrow. She continued speaking of the rampant kidnappings, murders, rapes, and all types of violence against women going on with little or no consequences within Mexico now. Small, Personal Gatherings Replace UN Meeting With drug cartel violence, corrupt and inept government officials, women have little recourse. However, Carolina is committed to return to Mexico and aid as many as she can overcome these horrific situations and experiences.

This year of the 25th anniversary of Beijing Women’s meeting, the CSW was cancelled because of COVID-19. However, four of us from Dubuque— Bridget Goldbeck, Jeannine Pitas, Irene Lukefahr, and Roberta White—attended alternate small gatherings with women who had prepared for talks to be given at the UN CSW. Beth Blissman, the Loretto/BVM connection with UN affairs as a nongovernment organization (NGO), arranged some powerful and inspiring alternate experiences for us, the above being one.

We also heard stories from two young women, Lyria, 17, and Marlene, 19. These girls had met in a Grail Catholic women’s shelter in Mozambique. They told of a 12-year-old sold in marriage to a man 35 years her elder who inflicted all kinds of abuse upon her. She escaped and found the shelter, help, and education. A 14-year-old girl ran away from home abuse, ended up on the streets involved in prostitution and drugs. She finally found aid at the shelter.

After more horrific details about both these girls’ experiences, Marlene and Lyria, holding hands, announced, “Those two girls are us! We have been saved and are getting an education with the help from The Grail. Now, we wish to help others in our same situations to overcome difficulties and transform their lives also. We wish to continue our education and even graduate!”

These young women are at the forefront of transformation for gender equality and safety. They will create new and improved paradigms for women of the world. They are hope for our future world.

Another similar experience was with a small group at the Salvation Army. They also sponsored women from different countries to attend CSW. Five women shared their tragic personal stories of oppression and violence. Though difficult and ongoing, all are overcoming their experiences with the help of others, and also wish to help others in gratitude for what was given to them.

Even though we did not have the scheduled experiences of choices for over 500 sessions, nor 10,000 women attending from almost every country in the world; even though we did not have the leader of the UN and its countries share on gender equality challenges; we did have a much more personal, deep interaction with a few women we can now call by name and friend.

We felt each one’s pains and hopes. We talked on the subway, at lunches, and on breaks over the course of a few days together. We now hold each one closely in our hearts and prayers. These young ones are the transformers of our future in faraway countries!

Irene Lukefahr

Even though the activities planned for the CSW were cancelled, our BVM Life and Mission was very evident throughout the week.

Listening to two young women from Mozambique tell their story, which included being involved in prostitution due to poverty, called to mind the work of Catholic sisters worldwide who are working to end human trafficking. This includes our Tri-State Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Slavery and all sisters and associates who are working to end human trafficking.

Meeting with David, a representative from Amnesty International, confirmed how important it is to sign the Amnesty postcards, letters, and petitions calling for the release of those held prisoner throughout the world. Individuals receiving these items are given hope that they were not forgotten. Guards are more likely to treat prisoners with dignity when they realize hundreds of people are speaking up for a prisoner.

Being reminded of the importance that education makes in the lives of young women throughout the world reaffirmed the value of our BVM Community Scholarship program. Passing by the Statue of Liberty on a boat ride to Staten Island called to mind how crucial it is to continue our work for immigration reform and care for refugees. There are still huddled masses yearning to breathe free!

Debarking from our cruise boat in New York Harbor, the memory of our first BVM sisters came to mind. Though feeling lost, abandoned, and penniless, they were grateful that they had each other. Their experiences can give us all hope that we will get through the great challenges of COVID-19. As long as we are working unitedly, God will aid us as in the past.

Bridget Goldbeck

Bridget Goldbeck was a member of the millennial panel at the Assembly this past summer. She is a graduate of Clarke University and a lawyer in Dubuque, Iowa.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I agreed to go on this trip. I knew it would be a good opportunity for me to learn more about women in other countries and the hardships they face in their everyday lives. I was also excited to learn about the UN and learn about the NGOs that work closely with the UN.

I also looked forward to spending time with Roberta, Irene, and Rose Mary Meyer, as I always learn so much when I hang out with BVMs! I’m always interested in learning new things, and this sounded so different from anything I had ever experienced before.

I’ll admit I was hesitant about going to New York after the conference was cancelled, but I knew I’d still have the opportunity to learn and meet some fantastic people. I was not disappointed, and I am so glad I made the trip. Sunday afternoon at The Grail was more than I could have ever dreamed. I felt so empowered sitting in a small room with so many powerful and inspiring women, young and old.

Learning about child marriage and abuse from the young women presenters was a bit overwhelming. I was overcome with emotion when Lyria and Marlene from Mozambique shared their personal stories. I cannot imagine being brave enough to share a story like that, even with a small group. Getting to know them throughout the week was special as well. Although it was hard to communicate with them, it was wonderful to see them smile and offer us hugs whenever we saw them.

Thursday at the Salvation Army was pretty powerful as well. Irene, Roberta, and I ended up having such an interesting and insightful conversation with Raquel and her son, Samuel. They are from Spain.

I think it was even more valuable to have the small group interactions throughout the week, although I do realize I don’t have anything to compare it to. I’m not sure we would have gotten the same types of deep conversations if we had been at the actual CSW.

Aside from all the wonderful presenters we heard, I had an incredible time traveling around the city with Roberta and Irene. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet such amazing people, and I hope to continue the relationship with the BVMs and with the Loretto community.

Jeannine Pitas

Jeannine Pitas teaches at the University of Dubuque (UD).

My trip to the UN with the BVMs, while different from what we’d hoped for, was inspiring and eye-opening. Beth Blissman did an excellent job of creating a meaningful experience for us. We got to tour the UN building, see the Loretto office, and meet a representative of Amnesty International.

Most inspiring for me, however, was the chance to meet some young women from Mozambique who had traveled to New York for the CSW meeting. These two beautiful young women had escaped forced marriage and abuse; now, they are pursuing an education and starting new lives.

It was inspiring to feel that the work I do in Dubuque (teaching first-generation college students at UD and providing support for undocumented immigrants) is part of a much bigger global picture. I often feel that what I do is very small, but together, women around the world are doing these small actions that amount to something greater.

Rose Mary Meyer

Rose Mary Meyer attended discussions and sharings one day via Zoom.

During the Zoom call, I shared some of my memories about being in Beijing in 1995. Women from many countries had brought with them weavings, baskets, and much more, the treasured culture related creativity and work of many women’s hands. These items were placed on the ground where the women could find an empty spot and were for sale. Their joy and pride in these cultural treasures were evident.

Those of us who were not staying on the conference site had buses which transported us to and from Beijing. So many had registered for the conference that many had to stay in nearby Beijing. We waited in a tent for the buses to come to return us to Beijing.

One evening I remember especially. All of us in the tent looked tired. Then a group of women from the continent of Africa began to sing and dance. Their energy inspired all of us and our exhaustion gave way to joy and laughter and togetherness.

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