The power of pulling together: CRS celebrates more than 60 years of helping women

from Catholic Relief Services
Published on 13 Dec 2006
by Erika Williams

"I thought I was going to die, but through counseling I made up my mind to stay healthy," says Helen Nyeko.

Helen, who lives in northern Uganda, tested positive for HIV in 1992 while she was caring for her husband, who was dying from the illness. Two years later, she made the decision to live.

She enrolled in counseling and education courses that taught the importance of living positively with the disease. She soon began receiving antiretroviral medications through her district's Comboni Samaritan Center and became even healthier.

Having benefited so much from Comboni, Helen made another important decision - to become a volunteer caregiver through the center, helping others who are suffering from the disease. She now feels that she's a living testimony of the effectiveness of the antiretroviral medications and the impact they are having on African women and children.

Helen's story is similar to those of many women around the globe who have benefited from CRS-supported programs. Through such programming, the agency's aim is to build and sustain a better life for women in developing countries.

Whether making antiretroviral drug treatment accessible, fostering livelihood assistance through savings and loan programs, or building water systems in remote villages, the welfare of countless women has significantly improved through a diverse and innovative network of programs and partnerships.

Partnering to Help Women

CRS has long held a close and fruitful relationship with the National Council of Catholic Women, which since 1946 has helped CRS raise $12 million for programs that help women.

Consisting of over 5,000 Catholic women's groups, the National Council of Catholic Women, educates its members on the triumphs and testimonies of women like Helen Nyeko and others who have struggled, stumbled and, most importantly, survived.

The partnership focuses on four program areas, collectively referred to as Works of Peace and Works of Reconciliation, which benefit women and girls:

The Madonna Plan:

Empowers women by improving the well being of mothers through projects in the areas of health, education and financial security.

Refugee Women's Emergency Fund:

Provides food, water, medicine, shelter and opportunities to secure future livelihood and income for women and children who are refugees, internally displaced persons or victims of natural disasters.

Water for Life:

Makes safe, clean water available by implementing projects for water systems, basic hygiene and food distribution.


Assists children in the countries of Africa, India and Latin America through family and community-based programs such as education, youth centers and assistance for disabled and vulnerable children.

"It gives me a sense of pride to know that the efforts of CRS and the National Council of Catholic Women, to raise awareness about the challenges people face in different countries around the world, opens doors for women and girls that would otherwise remain closed," says Joan Neal, CRS vice president for U.S. Operations.

"To us it is a small amount of attention, a donation or a growing project, but to the women we are helping it represents so much more."

Clean Water

In the Philippines, Babu Sasang celebrates her ability to draw clean water from a well that CRS helped install near her home.

Just five years ago, her village had serious water sanitation issues. As a housewife, Babu's main concern was the lack of access to a clean, safe water source. Diarrhea and other waterborne diseases were prevalent among children in her community. Her own son even suffered diarrhea and almost died.

She worried because the only source of clean water was a shallow well almost a quarter mile from her home. During the rainy season, this became even more of a problem because her village is located near a marsh that floods for days on end, cutting off residents' access to clean water sources.

When the CRS-Maguindanao Child Survival Project began in her village in 2001, Babu was excited. The project is implemented through a partnership between CRS, the Integrated Provincial Health Office and the Kadtuntaya Foundation Inc., a Muslim non-governmental organization.

"Thanks to the project, our municipal local government unit now regularly clears the drainage system, which decreases the floodwater during the rainy season," she says. Now, there are 13 water pumps located throughout her village. And previously, where 50 households had to share one shallow well, now there are only six to eight households per pump.

"We depend on this clean water, and we're thankful that we no longer have to worry about surviving without it," Babu says with satisfaction.

Earning and Saving

Maria do Carmo lives in East Timor, in an Indonesian Civil Servants Housing compound. She has been there since 1993. Years of social unrest and fighting left her family with little money, struggling to survive from day to day.

"When we returned home from the refugee camp in Kupang [West Timor] we did not have anything. We lost everything during the fighting," she says. With the last bit of money she had - 50 cents - she bought a small bag of flour and began making and selling kripik, Indonesian chips, in order to support her family. She saved everything she earned for a year to put into a small business.

Maria heard about CRS' microfinance program in August 2001 and decided to join. Her first loan was for $50 and with that, she bought a sack of flour and increased the variety of kripik she was selling. She also opened a small store, which she built out of palm tree leaves and fibers.

Today Maria earns about $35 a day from her ventures and has used profits to remodel her store using concrete. She has also been able to begin a savings plan for her family. Her most recent loan was for $140 and she hopes to qualify for an even larger one during the next loan cycle so that she may expand her business. CRS and its local microfinance partner, Tuba Rai Metin, helped Maria expand her business through the program Filaliman ba Feto.

"I am very grateful to the microfinance program for helping me improve my business; I've learned a lot and feel more confident about my future now," she exclaims. "Thanks to the program, I've been able to dramatically improve my family's living conditions and better provide for my children."

Erika Williams is a communications coordinator for CRS. She works in the Baltimore office.