Panel of Catholic sisters participating in the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship


Georgetown Panel Celebrates the Visibility, Vitality, and Voice of Catholic Sisters

By: Siobhan Cooney

May 22, 2023

Catholic sisters worldwide are compelling (if often largely silent and invisible) forces for change. Nowhere is this more true than in Africa, where they serve in many sectors but with a laser focus on the most vulnerable populations in their communities.

This was the driving force behind the conception and creation of the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship, a program designed to amplify the visibility, vitality, and voice Catholic sisters have as advocates for women and girls’ empowerment. The inaugural cohort is comprised of a group of 10 sisters from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda who are committed advocates in areas critical to development and humanitarian work, including women and girls’ education, health, trafficking, and livelihoods.

Thomas Banchoff, vice president for global engagement and director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, described the initiative as a “creative and ambitious effort” that is “vitally important at a critical moment for Africa, the world, and the Church.”

The year-long fellowship began with an experiential, two-week program that employed Georgetown University and the greater Washington, DC, area as a classroom and living lab. While in DC the sisters participated in a certificate program hosted by the Berkley Center and the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership, as well as visits to leading institutions such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), the World Bank, and several secular and faith-inspired organizations addressing gender issues.

On April 25, a panel on “Celebrating the Visibility, Vitality, and Voice of Catholic Sisters” brought together four sisters from the cohort to highlight the work they are doing in their countries and to share the obstacles and opportunities they see to enhance their roles and impact. The conversation was moderated by Sr. Jane Wakahiu, LSOSF, associate vice president of program operations and head of the Catholic Sisters initiative at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Expertise and Leadership Rooted in Faith

The sisters who participated in the panel came with a wealth of experience and academic expertise, including master’s and doctoral degrees in fields ranging from educational management to gender and women’s studies. The sisters’ training has enabled them to better serve the girls in their communities, said Sr. Josephine Apiagyei, SSL. Building this expertise on a strong foundation in faith is what makes these sisters innovative and formidable grassroots leaders in their parishes and dioceses across Africa.

Sr. Hedwig Muse, LSMIG, reiterated that they would not be able to achieve such breadth and depth in their work without being moved by faith in some way.

“It is the faith that gives us the energy, the strength, the commitment to go on, even in tough times.”

As religious women, living a life of community and prayer builds virtues of patience, fortitude, and obedience that allow them to serve humanity wherever they are called.

“It’s important we support Catholic sisters not just because of what they do,” said Sr. Wakahiu, “but also because they remain in those communities.”

Echoing the sentiments of her fellow sisters, Sr. Francisca Ngozi Uti, HHCJ, emphasized that having a deep understanding of faith enables them to extend their service beyond Catholic individuals to all women and girls.

Empowering and Educating Girls and Women

One issue uniting the sisters in the cohort is female education and empowerment. The panelists each highlighted the various formal education programs and vocational training initiatives that are part of their respective ministries.

In discussing her work as executive director of the Centre for Women Studies and Intervention in Abuja, Nigeria, Sr. Uti noted that if half of a society is marginalized, then they cannot live life to the fullest.

“We try to dismantle unjust systems that dehumanize the woman and the girl child: cultural and religious practices and the political scene. You find that when women are not at the table where decisions are made, you cannot hear their voices.”

Thus, the sisters turn their attention towards the most vulnerable in their local communities, including girls and women who have suffered psychosocial trauma resulting from trafficking, domestic violence, combat, and an array of other challenging circumstances.

Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe, SHS, described a project during the COVID-19 pandemic in which she connected with women who were former child soldiers and taught them how to sew masks over Zoom. Through this endeavor, she aimed to impart practical skills as a form of rehabilitation to mend their brokenness and cultivate hope.

An integral part of this empowerment is educating girls and women on human rights. Sr. Muse currently serves as legal and program officer for human rights in the Justice and Peace Department of the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya and partners with secondary schools to administer training manuals on human rights. She pointed to a greater need for continued follow-up for girls and women to not only know their rights, but to claim them.

This also involves helping these girls and women develop more confident mindsets. Sr. Wakahiu identified the need for “shifting our cultural understanding, or shifting the narrative to give women the opportunity to challenge the culture that we have been brought up in in Africa.”

“What we try to do is to instill in them a sense of value in themselves as individuals, as people with strengths, talents, and interests, able to affect the world,” added Sr. Apiagyei.

Cross-Continental Networking to Build a Common Voice

In addition to catalyzing their work in their respective impact areas, the fellowship aims to facilitate a better understanding and appreciation of the work that fellow sisters do in their home communities.

This amplification of dialogue and connectivity will continue as the fellowship continues beyond the gates of Georgetown. The cohort will also participate in the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations General Assembly from May 12 to 16, 2023, in Rome; the Women Deliver Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, from July 17 to 20, 2023; and the United Nations Annual General Assembly (UNGA 78) occurring September 12 through 30, 2023, in New York City.

The panelists concluded by sharing their gratitude for being part of such a stimulating and supportive fellowship that has already yielded new purpose, direction, and strategies for their work back home. Sr. Nyirumbe offered an animated call to action.

“We need to use our education, our status as a platform to go up and go down, to meet people who have remained behind. We need to bring them forward. And that type of work, going down and working with the most neglected, cannot be done by any other person except by Catholic sisters.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Conrad N. Hilton Foundation; Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities; Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University; and Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University have collaborated in the design and delivery of the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. Funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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