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Number 181 - February 2018
Each year on 11 February, we mark World Day of the Sick. Coinciding with the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, especially associated with healing, this day has special significance for MMMs and MMM Associates, committed to bring healing to ourselves and others.
In his message for World Day of the Sick 2018, Pope Francis highlighted the words that Jesus spoke from the Cross his mother and to the beloved disciple: 'Woman, behold your son ... Behold your mother. And from that hour the disciple took her into his home' (Jn 19:26-27).
Pope Francis continued, ‘The Lord’s words brilliantly illuminate the mystery of the Cross, which does not represent a hopeless tragedy, but rather the place where Jesus manifests his glory and shows his love to the end. Before all else, Jesus’ words are the source of Mary’s maternal vocation for all humanity.’ He pointed out that ‘the unspeakable pain of the Cross pierces Mary’s soul (cf. Lk 2:35), but does not paralyze her…. As the Lord’s Mother, a new path of self-giving opens up before her....
‘[Jesus] bestowed mercy and forgiveness upon all, and healed the sick as a sign of the abundant life of the Kingdom, where every tear will be wiped away. Like Mary, the disciples are called to care for one another’ and ‘they know that Jesus’ heart is open to all and excludes no one. The Gospel of the Kingdom must be proclaimed to all, and the charity of Christians must be directed to all, simply because they are persons, children of God.’
Francis emphasized the importance of putting the human person at the centre of the healing process. He said that everywhere the Church ‘tries to provide care, even when she is not in a position to offer a cure. The image of the Church as a “field hospital” that welcomes all those wounded by life is a very concrete reality.’
He also called attention to ‘the tender love and perseverance of many families in caring for their chronically sick or severely disabled children, parents and relatives. The care given within families is an extraordinary witness of love for the human person.’
‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness?’ (Micah 6:8 NRSV)
Also of special significance this month is World Day of Social Justice on 20 February. Pope Paul VI, in his message for the 1972 Day of Peace, wrote that if we look for the true source of peace, we find that it is rooted in a sincere feeling for [humanity]. ‘A Peace that is not the result of true respect for [humanity] is not true Peace. And what do we call this sincere feeling? We call it Justice.’
He said that it is a dynamic justice and ‘not simply an individual phenomenon, nor one reserved for select and restricted groups; it is now a collective and universal phenomenon. The developing countries shout it out with a loud voice. It is the voice of peoples, the voice of [humanity]. It demands a new expression of Justice, a new foundation for Peace. Convinced as we all are of this irrepressible cry, why do we waste time in giving peace any other foundation than Justice?’
He continued, ‘The invitation we give to celebrate Peace resounds as an invitation to practise Justice: "Justice will bring about Peace" (Cf: Is 32:17). We repeat this today in a more incisive and dynamic formula: "If you want Peace, work for Justice".’
As we approach the season of Lent, the words of Isaiah seem appropriate: ‘Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, and to undo the thongs of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free?’ (Is 58:6 NRSV))
In this e-newsletter you can read about MMMs and MMM Associates who are doing justice in our world. They are walking with women traumatized by physical and psychological violence in Nigeria, Brazil and the USA. Their stories illustrate the tremendous need to bring about justice for women today.
We may sometimes wonder if our efforts to bring about social justice are having any lasting effects. While serving as director of the MMM Counseling and Social Services Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I attended the XIIth World AIDS Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. In our 1998 Annual Report, I quoted the following story from one of the workshops I attended:
A Dr. Oleske from the USA said that in caring for children with HIV, he was asked, ‘Why bother with these children? They’re only dying.’ He responded, ‘A little girl was walking along a beach where the tide had gone out. On the beach were many starfish that were drying out and dying for lack of water. The little girl was picking up the starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. A man approached her and asked her what she was doing. ‘I’m trying to save them,’ she said. ‘But all your efforts mean nothing,’ replied the man. ‘There are thousands of them.’ The little girl looked at the starfish in her hand and said, ‘But it means everything to this one.’
Thank you for working with us to bring about justice for each person we encounter. We remember you in prayer each day. Please remember us as well.
Sr. Carol Breslin, MMM
Agents of peace in a turbulent society
Many international agreements, including the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, have recognized women’s fundamental human right to live free from violence.
A WHO Fact Sheet issued in 2012 said that patterns of violence against women are different from those against men. Globally, men are more likely to die as a result of armed conflict, interpersonal aggression from strangers and suicide, while women are more likely to die at the hands of someone close to them, including husbands and other intimate partners. Thus, women are often emotionally involved with, and economically dependent upon, their aggressors.
Attitudes in many societies serve to justify, tolerate or condone violence against women, often blaming them for what they experience. These attitudes often stem from traditional beliefs that view women as subordinate to men or entitle men to use violence to control women.
‘If you want peace, work for justice’ (Pope Paul VI). Medical Missionaries of Mary in Salvador, Brazil began Projeto Consolação (Project Consolation) in Nordeste de Amaralina in 2011. The project’s aim is to support families, especially mothers, whose members have been assassinated as a result of urban violence. Those killed are usually young sons, caught up in drug trafficking or suspected by the police of drug involvement. There are cases of domestic abuse and victims of stray bullets because local gangs are heavily armed and police presence is minimal. Using active listening as their main tool, staff members help victims to deal with their grief and to overcome the isolation and stigmatization they experience.
As a result of an evaluation carried out in the community in November 2015, the staff decided to focus more on the youth because they are directly affected by the negative environment. The violence in Salvador targets mainly the black male population on the periphery of the city. There are few opportunities for jobs or recreational activities, making them more vulnerable to drug and substance abuse.
Sister Nilza Nascimento dos Santos, from Brazil, did her field work on Project Consolation as a student for her BA in Sustainable Human Development. After completing the School of the Lord´s Service in preparation for final commitment in MMM, she joined the project in June 2017. She said that interventions in this challenging ministry include family visits and, in some cases, referring members to psychologists.
Activities were recently established in schools to reach different age groups. Talks are given on good health, human rights and peace-making. Along with English lessons, these sessions help children to make healthy choices and develop confidence. Staff members are trained in basic counseling and listening skills. Sessions in therapeutic art using handcrafts often lead to moments of great sharing and support. Nilza related the story of one woman who turned to the project for help.
'A witness of love for the human person' (Pope Francis) ‘It was an afternoon like any other in our daily schedule. I had just entered the office and I started getting ready to face the afternoon. Suddenly a mother came in. She was tall and dark, and her eyes were directed at the floor. I didn’t focus on her height or color, but on her face, which expressed suffering and a cry for help. She struck me as someone who seemed lost in the depths of the ocean. One of the team members welcomed her and offered her something to drink. The woman began to speak quietly, expressing her pain at being beaten up by her husband. This was part of her daily routine. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
‘After a long time of debriefing she was invited to participate in the handcraft group. After a few days she was already beginning to raise her eyes. During our Christmas celebration she said that Project Consolation had brought life back to her and had given meaning to her existence.’
For Nilza, this story illustrates how domestic violence devastates human dignity. It calls attention to the issue of femicide – ‘the killing of a woman or girl because her gender’ (Oxford Dictionary). According to a 2015 report issued by the Latin American Social Sciences Institute, UN Women Brazil, and the World Health Organization (WHO), an average of 13 women were killed per day in Brazil in 2013, the fifth highest of the 83 countries for which WHO statistics were available. The number of murders of Black women surged by 54 per cent from 2003 to 2013, rising from 1,864 to 2,875 women, respectively.
Representative of UN Women Brazil, Nadine Gasman, said the report sheds new light on the violence inflicted against Black or African-descendent Brazilian women. ‘Black women are exposed to direct violence in which they are fatally victimized, impacting their children and the people close to them. It is urgent to create public awareness around racism and promote institutional responses to support Black women.’
Nilza wrote, ‘It is in this reality that we as MMMs, AMMMs, staff and volunteers promote a culture of co-existence and peace. I get great energy when I manage to be like Mary in the Visitation encounter, recognizing God´s faithful presence in the other even in the midst of chaotic situations. It means to go in haste to help the mothers and children of our day, ultimately promoting the well-being of the family. This is what it means to be an agent of peace and reconciliation in a turbulent society.’
‘No more Miss Nobody’
In May 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated: 'Each year, between 50,000 to 100,000 women worldwide develop obstetric fistula.' This injury, a hole in the birth canal (VVF), results from obstructed labour, which accounts for 6% of all maternal deaths.
WHO continued: 'It is estimated that more than 2 million young women live with untreated obstetric fistula in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.’ Many are young girls. Women who experience this preventable condition cannot control their urine and, if the rectum is involved (RVF), their bowel contents. This may lead to skin infections, kidney disorders, nerve damage, and even death.
The baby is unlikely to survive and the woman is usually rejected by her husband because she cannot bear more children. Ostracized from society, these women suffer profoundly from their loss of status and dignity. Left with no means of support they must often resort to begging or sex work to survive.
Obstetric fistula has been largely eliminated in the developed world with improved maternal care and the use of Caesarean section to relieve obstructed labour. It can also be prevented by delaying the age of first pregnancy and stopping harmful cultural practices. Because many health care systems still fail to provide accessible, quality antenatal care and basic obstetric services the wider issue of women’s and girls’ rights in society must be addressed.
According to WHO, surgery may cure 80 to 95% of patients. Health professionals are being trained in preventing and managing obstetric fistula. Nevertheless, most occur among women living in poverty. They may save for years to get the money for transport and an operation. While cure can be life-restoring, many affected women are still left with chronic ill health as the result of their injuries and neglect.
The results of a study released by the WHO Department of Reproductive Health and Research on 5 December 2017 showed that between 1990 and 2013, worldwide coverage of early antenatal care visits increased by about 43%, reaching nearly six out of ten women. In developing regions, estimated coverage increased by as much as 74%.
Still, less than half of all women in developing regions received early antenatal care in 2013. Estimated coverage of two regions (sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania) was less than 25% in 2013. These regions also had the highest ratio of deaths of women during pregnancy and childbirth, and the highest rates of stillbirths and deaths of newborn infants.
In contrast, about 85% of women in developed regions had an early antenatal visit with a health provider in 2013.
Called to bring healing Medical Missionaries of Mary, with particular concern for the care of mother and child, have worked to prevent obstetric fistula by providing access to quality antenatal, obstetric and child care. MMMs based in East and West Africa began services for the holistic care of women affected by fistula. Currently, we provide these in Itam, Nigeria with the help of visiting surgeons several times a year. Sister Sylvia Ndubuaku, matron at Itam, told us about some of the challenges the staff faced at the August 2017 camp.
Preparations started with a one-month visitation to villages, churches, traditional birth attendants and women’s groups to give information about VVF. The Nigerian Television Authority aired an announcement. Because of the publicity, many women arrived with different health problems such as uterine prolapse and haemorrhoids. Most were treated as outpatients.
Forty-three women with VVF and/or RVF were admitted for a week before surgery. Anaemia, malaria, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar were investigated and treated. Patients were given information about the surgery and possible outcomes.
Staff gave sessions on the causes, prevention, and treatment of VVF/RVF, so that when the women went home, they would teach other women. Sylvia noted that those who go home dry (cured) are good agents to pass on these messages. Those who are still leaking often remain in hiding despite all the information they receive.
Repair surgery The surgeons arrived on 14 August and began to assess patients. Of those who had surgery, 30 had VVFs; 4 had RVFs; and 3 had other conditions. Twenty-three women went home dry. Fourteen will need further repairs.
There were 23 new cases: the fistulae were not recent but the women had not had previous repair surgery. There were 20 'old' cases: these women had repairs previously but were still leaking. Most of these, both old and new, were very complicated with severe damage. The staff felt sure that the poor economic situation in the country was a contributing factor. Most of the women found it very hard to eat twice a day. They were unable to avail of good health facilities for their deliveries, putting them at risk for complications. Some arrived with children with severe malnutrition.
In this camp, some operations took up to eight hours. For example, eight involved reconstruction of the bladder neck. Complicated cases are more expensive because more medical supplies and medications are used and medical staff have to spend more time than usual. After surgery, women stay for another three to four weeks with catheters and other treatment. This time many stayed longer than usual.
Sadly, two patients died. A 25-year-old woman, first operated on in May 2017 for a VVF, came this time with an RVF. Her condition did not allow for both repairs to be done at the same time. Her operation was successful but her condition suddenly changed five days later. She died within a few hours. A 24-year-old woman developed kidney failure four days after her operation. She was rushed to the university teaching hospital for dialysis but died four days later. Their deaths were the first since Itam started the camps in 2013 and were shocking for everyone.
Post-surgery rehabilitation Because risk factors for developing a fistula include lack of education and skills to earn a livelihood, women are taught income generating activities (IGAs) such as making body cream, hot balm and bleach, and catering. Sewing and hair dressing are taught later, when the women's health has improved and wounds are well healed. The women are often discharged before they begin the latter courses.
Eight women now living in the compound depend on the Sisters for feeding and other needs. One is ashamed to go home because she is still leaking and finds the hospital environment more comfortable. Four others cannot afford to come from home for IGA training. Three have no home.
One of them is a fourteen-year-old girl who was brutally sexually abused. She was brought to Itam by some policemen who rescued her. She has already had several operations. An orphan, she dropped out of school at a very early stage but hopes to return soon.
Making a difference Donations from Declan and Helen Eustace were used to buy equipment for hair dressing training. Six women have already learned enough to start generating money themselves. They have also learned some manicuring skills.
Those who learned sewing have started marketing their products. Sylvia commented, ‘It is very encouraging seeing their joy and dignity when they can make something themselves. ’ Some of the Sisters had dresses made.
Local donors, including Concern Christian Family and Imibo Edikan Peace and Charity Association, brought food, clothing, and cleaning and hygiene products.
Dignity restored One 28-year-old woman came to live in the compound for rehabilitation after her second VVF operation. She had only stayed five months when she discovered that she could make a dress, as well as body cream, hot balm and other products. She went back to her village to sell them. When she told people she had made these things herself, her story suddenly changed. Many people gathered around, asking her questions. They bought some of her products and begged her to teach them how to produce them. She now sees herself as a woman with dignity who can teach other people how to make a living. She spent her Christmas leave in her village to teach cream and soap production. She said, ‘I am no more Miss Nobody’, a name she had borne for nine years.
Dying well in prison
In November 2015, The Sentencing Project1 issued a fact sheet about incarcerated women and girls in the USA. It stated that ‘over the past quarter century, there has been a profound change in the involvement of women within the criminal justice system. This is the result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to re-entry that uniquely affect women.’
It said that between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women rose from 26,378 in 1980 to 215,332 in 2014, an increase of more than 700%. In 2014, there were 109,100 women in jail and 106,232 women in prison. More than 60% of women in state prisons had a child under the age of 18.
Though the rate of imprisonment for African-American women has been declining since 2000, in 2014 it was still more than twice that for white women. Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.2 times the rate of white women.
Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for drug or property offenses. Bureau of Justice statistics showed that while 37% of female prisoners were imprisoned for violent crimes compared to 54% of men, 24% percent of women were convicted of a drug offense in contrast to 15% of men; 28% of women were convicted of property crimes compared to 19% of men.
Backing up these findings was an article by Nina Bahadur in the Huffington Post on 6 December 2017. Ms. Bahadur quoted the International Centre for Prison Studies as saying that about two-thirds of women incarcerated in federal prisons are serving time for nonviolent, drug-related crimes.
She said that women are further disadvantaged by lack of education: one study suggested that ‘44% percent of female prisoners in the U.S. don’t have a high school diploma or GED.’ Mandatory sentencing minimums have led to prison overcrowding in general. Locking up women plays a huge role in breaking up families: 64% of female state prisoners lived with and cared for their minor children before their imprisonment.
‘When did we see you in prison?’ (Mt 25:39) MMM Associate (AMMM) Nancy Hinds sees her life as a ‘calling to serve’. She and Anne Marie Kenny were the first AMMMs in the USA and made their covenants in October 1999.
Nancy established the Hinds Hospice in Fresno, California, in 1981, with the mission of upholding the dignity and easing the suffering of the terminally ill, while supporting their caregivers and those who were grieving. She said, ‘I am drawn to the poor, the wounded, the prisoner, and the homeless. My life work has been caring for the dying. It was a calling to help make life’s final journey one of peace and reconciliation, of mercy and forgiveness. I do not have words to describe the feeling of holding someone’s hand at the time of passing, only to have God’s touch the next to be felt. I pray every minute that he will use me to show his love and mercy to others.’
While Nancy officially ‘retired’ from the Hinds Hospice in 2012, she continued to bring healing and hope to others through hospice work in California prisons. In this context, ‘hospice’ is not a building but a philosophy of compassionate holistic care. She recently gave us an update on her ministry with women who experience incredible pain and desperation.
‘For the past twenty years, professional hospice registered nurses and social workers have voluntarily provided training and support to the incarcerated women in Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. The largest female correctional facility in the United States, it houses over 3,500 women. A maximum security prison, it has twenty-two women on death row. When you use the words 'wounded', 'broken', 'marginalized' - these describe the women I have met.
‘I was asked to train the prison staff and inmates on the care of the AIDS patients. At the same time, the Women’s Advisory Council was asking for help in the care of the aging, vulnerable and dying. The trainings have evolved as needs were identified, especially with the growing aged population. The daily tensions of surviving each day are evident.
‘Some working in the prison feel that they need to punish the prisoner even more than the incarceration and make each day frightening. Some wonder why there should be a hospice program for thieves and murderers.' 'To heal the broken-hearted' (Is. 61: 1) ‘Volunteers have been chosen because of the remarkable work they have done on themselves, to reach deep into their souls, to be repentant for their crime, to surrender to God to be the person he chose them to be, and to reach out to others with a compassionate hand. Their fellow inmates have become their family. They are committed to serve their family as a compassionate companion.
‘When I meet with them, I see a strong relationship with God, a great trust that he loves them in spite of their crimes. They do thirty-plus hours of training that brings them through their own grief so they can be healthy companions with others in their grief. They learn communication skills, listening skills, and how to honor the hospice program by not engaging in confrontation with officials or custodial staff. They learn about different diseases so they can advocate for treatment and care when needed. They learn about other spiritual belief systems.
‘The work has been transformational for me. I try to go where God leads me - even to the prison. I have been witness to God’s mercy for the prisoners, not just with the dying, but with the inmate volunteers sitting vigil at their bedside. Yes, God is there in the room of cement blocks and heavy metal doors.
'A volunteer whispered in the ear of the dying woman, “Tell God, I am sorry. Please tell the man I killed, I’m sorry.” The dying inmate opened her eyes and said, “God forgave you long ago.” With that message delivered, the inmate died. Another volunteer at the bedside wept uncontrollably. She said that she was overwhelmed to be at the bedside of the dying inmate so she wouldn’t be alone, when she had left her own victim to die alone. “Forgive me, Jesus.”
‘Forgiveness, mercy, compassion and love have grown in the hearts of the inmate volunteers and their dying prison family.
‘After all these years of hospice not even being acknowledged as a program, prison administrators have said it is so valuable that they want to see the model replicated throughout all California facilities. We already have trained an inmate group in southern California where they had eleven suicides in just a few months. Lot of grief issues.
‘Why do we do it? I believe deeply and profoundly in God’s mercy. If we can effect healing and forgiveness, then I’m grateful for the privilege to bring that to the prisoners. In a very humble way I try to live out the healing charism of the Medical Missionaries of Mary.’
1The Sentencing Project, a non-profit organisation, works for a fair and effective U.S. justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration. Sentencingproject.org
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