Written by Anna Krohn, National Bioethics Convenor
Youth and hope at this month’s United Nations Department of Public Information/NGO Conference in Melbourne
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Martin D Holley blesses a sleeping child at Our Lady of Apostles Hospital in Akwanga, Nigeria on 2 September. He was visiting Ghana and Nigeria with a delegation representing the US Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Africa. The Akwanga hospital, supported by the diocese of Lafia and Catholic Relief Services, serves the rural community of farmers. Nearly 1,500 people receive antiretroviral therapy for the treatment of HIV and AIDS through the hospital. A UN conference in Melbourne revelealed Catholic relief agencies do much of the work for AIDS sufferers.
Over many years the Catholic Women’s League Australia, which has maintained its consultative (Roster) status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, has been a face of the “culture of life” at many complex and sometimes antagonistic debates which take place on the floor of United Nations’ Conferences.
Many will remember the important interventions made by Pope John Paul II and Mary Ann Glendon in the heated debates over “gender politics”, reproductive rights in population policy at the Cairo Conference in 1994 and again at the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995. These debates continue to this day at every meeting of different United Nations special interest conferences.
However, it was the positive presence of young people, especially those inspired and open about their faith which impressed the CWLA delegation who attended the important 63rd United Nations Department of Public Information/Non-Government Organisation (UN DPI/NGO) Conference held in Melbourne from 30 August to 1 September.The League’s delegation included Catholic women across generations and backgrounds. Participating in plenary and workshop sessions at the conference for the CWLA were: Madge Fahy (National President), Thora Reagan (National International Secretary), Catherine McGrath (nominee WUCWO Board Member, Australia), Betty Roberts (Social Issues Convenor), Anna Krohn (CWLA Bioethics Convenor and Anima Women’s Network), Marcia Riordan (Melbourne Archdiocese Life, Marriage and Family Office) and Olivia Meese (a medical student from The University of Notre Dame).
It was the first time that Australia had hosted a UN event of this size, at which 1600 delegates from over 350 non-governmental aid and health organisations were represented.
It was only the third time that the UN DPI/NGO conference has been held outside the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The conference was hosted by the Australian Government, the Victorian Government and Melbourne City Council.
The conference theme, Advancing Global Health, was given a sense of urgency because the UN is well aware that it must form successful partnerships with NGOs who are the first to attend to the most desperate people afflicted by the recent natural disasters, population displacements and the global economic crisis.
It is also the NGOs who stay long after political and factional differences dissolve government funding or the world’s attention.
The delegates heard a shocking role call of death laden statistics: one billion people are without access to food; 2.6 billion lack access to improved sanitation; eight out of 10 have no access to safe drinking water; nearly nine million children die before the age of five; and at least 340,000 women die each year of pregnancy-related causes.
During the conference, the CWLA women shared their research and took inspiration from the life and example of Dr Mary Glowrey, the founding President of the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga and the Catholic Hospital Association of India (CHAI).
Dr Mary Glowrey was one of the first women medical graduates in Australia and dedicated her life to the promotion of maternal and infant health, the provision of basic resources (food, water and sanitation) and the prevention of infectious diseases such as malaria. These same three health issues are central to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the series of internationally agreed social and economic targets which world leaders have pledged to try to attain by 2015.
Thora Regan was impressed by the way in which young people at the conference, many of them inspired by Christian, Buddhist and Jewish traditions, were so willing to share their time and discussions with each other.
Matthew Restall, organiser of the youth organisation RISE (Restoring Integrity and Sexual Ethics) had some interesting observations about his time at the UN DPI/NGO conference: “One of the really important elements to the conference was the Youth Breakfast Programme.
“Each morning, young people from the NGOs met to share ideas and to network. I was at each one of these and it struck me that there was a great deal of common ground amongst us younger people on the urgent need to overcome poverty. These young people did not all agree with my thoughts about sexual integrity and the right to life, but they all were willing to listen with respect to my contributions.”
The Joint Youth Statements can be seen as a strong desire to contribute to the promotion of basic human needs such as water, sanitation, nutrition, economic justice, environmental sustainability and stewardship, and basic maternal and infant welfare. Thora noted: “Their message to us was: do not be afraid to ask young people to step up and help.”
It was also significant that many of the most memorable media stories to emerge from the conference arose from the creative leadership, moral courage and blistering hard work of outstanding
Christian women: Sister Mary Owens (IBVN) and the Nyambani Village for HIV affected children and their families (Kenya); the Caritas teams in Papua New Guinea and Salesian Mission’s response to violence against women, especially amongst women whose lives have been disrupted by forced migration.
Marcia Riordan said she was “delighted and surprised to see the diversity of work being done by so many faith-based NGOs evident at the conference.”
The concluding Declaration stated that some of the Millennium Development Goals, all of which affect the health of populations, have been difficult to achieve without wholesale support from governments and agencies.
The goals “are significantly off-track for the poorest and least politically powerful people.” Although there were many well funded NGOs agitating for “contraception, abortion and sexual health rights and programmes”, the final Declaration steered clear of ratifying their claims.
Perhaps the greatest surprise for the CWLA delegates was the tone of the closing session.
Madge Fahy commented on the spirit of hope and cooperation captured in the closing statement by Dr Mary Norton, Chair of the 63rd Annual UNDPI/NGO Conference. Dr Norton recited the “Irish Blessing” and declared that the prayer was a vital part of her family’s tradition. Although many of the philosophical debates will continue on these important international events, this was a conference at which women of faith were both visible and effective.
Published in The Record