Sisters at Work: A Special Global Cohort

By: Luisa Banchoff Katherine Marshall

February 23, 2024

Over 600,000 Catholic sisters live and work in every world region. They run schools and hospitals, help victims of violence and abuse, and serve as witnesses and advocate for marginalized groups, including vulnerable children, refugees and migrants, human trafficking victims, Indigenous communities, the incarcerated, and ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. Many have a keen interest in the welfare and future paths of girls and women. They serve people of every faith, including, of course, fellow Catholics.

What is too little known and understood is the frontline support the sisters provide in communities facing poverty, armed conflict, and natural disasters. There is strikingly little systematic research examining their impact and their role in peacebuilding and development work. Like too many women even in today’s more inclusive world, their work is often largely invisible. Worse, they face numerous obstacles in the way to realizing their full potential. 

A new report, “Catholic Sisters: Their Work and Focus on Building Peace,” begins to address this gap by exploring, through a global lens, the peacebuilding and development work of Catholic sisters. The World Faiths Development Dialogue, based at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, with support from Religions for Peace, sought to focus on Catholic sisters as one largely unsung group of women who work tirelessly for peace and justice. Drawing both on interviews and diverse case studies, as well as focused reporting like the Global Sisters Report, the report steps back to situate the extraordinary diversity of religious orders and individuals and their work. It highlights strengths they bring to their work in their roles as Catholic sisters, as well as some of the challenges they face. The hope is that this analysis will contribute to several ongoing efforts to foster connections and opportunities for collaboration among sisters, NGOs, civil society groups, and individuals and institutions shaping peacebuilding and development policy on local and global levels. 

Several key trends emerge in a report that we see as scratching the surface of an extraordinary set of stories. Some findings reflect broader patterns in the global Catholic Church; for example, the ranks of Catholic sisters are declining in Europe and North America but rising in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. More and more sister-led peacebuilding and development initiatives are in some of the world’s most fragile and poorest places. Reflecting the ethos of other Church-linked peace initiatives, sisters’ peace work is broad and overlaps with multiple challenges, including anti-trafficking, climate change, nuclear disarmament, and the rights of refugees, migrants, women, and girls. It is fair to say that the very diverse sister-led approaches are firmly grounded in the understanding that peacebuilding is a long-term enterprise that is as much about building peaceful communities as it is about ending conflict. 

The report sheds light on overlooked or misunderstood facets of sisters’ peace work, including obstacles they face. While sisters enjoy the respect and trust of many in their communities, misconceptions and prejudice cause some people to regard sisters with suspicion or dismiss their contributions. Misconceptions include ideas about sisters’ "proper place" in convents rather than in the world, suspicion that their work is motivated by a desire to convert non-Catholics, their celibate lifestyle, and even their choice of attire. While many sisters downplay any adverse impact of such prejudice on their work, shining light on both assets and liabilities can nevertheless contribute to the phenomenon that one of this piece’s authors observed in a United States Institute of Peace study: that women’s and especially religious women’s leadership and creativity is so often invisible. Valuable contributions to peacebuilding are thus sidelined, even by fellow faith actors and development practitioners. 

The report highlights and builds on ideas for ways to enhance the sisters’ work. Telling their stories (for example through interviews like these) is an important starting point. Identifying and working to address obstacles is another. Reinforcing existing and emerging networks that link sisters working on similar causes is a vital tool. Building on the special assets sisters bring to the cause of empowering women is important. The goal is to support their work, recognize and build on their gifts, and reinforce bridges among different actors working by separate paths towards a common purpose. Women’s voices and strengths, including Catholic sisters, belong at policy tables of many kinds, from very local to the global stage. 

The report comes in parallel with an important initiative -- the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. A year-long fellowship was launched in May 2023, led by the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities, working with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership. It included a two-week program in Washington, DC; the inaugural fellows, 10 enterprising Catholic sisters from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, followed skill-building seminars and visited the World Bank, USAID, and the United States Institute for Peace. The fellows also attended key international meetings, including Women Deliver in Kigali, Rwanda, and the U.N. Annual General Assembly in New York City. Each fellow led a capstone project in her home community. Plans are underway to continue the sister fellowship in the years ahead.

By sharing their experiences and perspectives, these and other Catholic sisters will enrich our knowledge about their work, dreams, and plans for contributing to a more peaceful and just world. 

The full report can be accessed here.

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