Thursday, March 15, 2012

I have been back in what we call "normal life" for three days now. Even though I was only away for a little more than two weeks, I have come back to my job and my life with a refreshed perspective. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have more to share about my experience UN's 56th CSW, specifically on what issues and policies the presentations and information sessions focused on.

The overall theme for the United Nations 56th Commission on the Status of Women focused on the empowerment of rural women and girls and their roles in the eradication of poverty, hunger and in other current challenges. Topics that surfaced in the majority of the events were effective ways to implement policy designed to assist rural and isolated populations, the challenges of allowing women in rural areas to gain access to essential services and education, the need for developing appropriate metrics and data collecting tools for the development of policy, the need to better coordinate services for rural populations, and women's access to information and education.

In the next several posts, I will address a range of these issues and follow up with some of the ways the organizations like IIMA and VIDES can help women in rural communities to over come some of these challenges.

Data and Information Collecting and Reporting Should Involve Local Population
Often times presenting organizations and national representatives advocated for ways that involved local participation of local women's groups and community based organizations. Women in rural regions need to participate in the development of policies that is intended to help them. It was suggested that women living in rural regions should be involved in information and data collection processes. This suggestion made a lot of sense to me, and even in my work here in the Texas Legislature has never really been proposed. In many cases where there is data collection/ research projects being conducted, policy makers and governments tend to use outside research "experts" and research firms and often do not directly involve the local population in their research analysis. By involving rural women from the local communities in research and explaining to them the purpose and need for the research, more cost effective, more accurate in a representation of information collected and can help women to empower themselves and critically look at their own community circumstances in order to participate in policy making and reform decisions.

Land Ownership Rights, Education and Enforcement
Land ownership rights was a prevalent issue that came up in presentations by organizations doing work in Africa, Central America, South America, and the Middle East. In many countries women's right to land inheritance and ownership of land titles are minimal or non-existent. This presents women with a large range of difficulties and challenges when it comes to economic opportunities and access to credit. Something as basic as the right to private property has put women in so many places at a disadvantage and inability to grow their own prosperity. In these countries women are unable to "own" the land. Land ownership and private property rights is an essential component to the development of the American democratic system. Rights to land ownership is a basic component of being able to access full and equal civil rights. By reforming laws and institutions that prevent women from owning land and property women can grow to be more politically, socially and economically empowered.

A second issue relating to land rights, is that in many cases where underdeveloped or developing countries legally and statutorily grant women ownership rights to their land, they are not informed about their rights and have no means to appeal to the appropriate authorities to be able to enforce these rights at the local level. There is a need for all people, especially women and girls living in developing countries to be educated about their legal rights and how to navigate through the legal system if those rights are violated. What good are legal protections if people are unable to exercise them and if governments are unable to ensure that they are implemented and protected? That being said, it is importance to educate all people of their rights is clearly evidence. NGOs, local civil society organizations and national governments should be doing everything in their power to reach out to communities and educate women about their land rights and give them information on how to exercise those rights. Additionally, women who are living in areas where cultural and societal practices that have traditionally denied women land ownership and property rights need to be protected and have adequate support and assistance when they are choosing to act on their rights.

Questions and challenges that come to mind when attempting to over come these challenges are: What options are available in local areas and communities to report right violations? How efficient is this process? Do local communities or local law enforcement agents have the funding and capacity to do their job of enforcing these laws? What does the local legal system look like? Could we use things such as radio or internet for court hearings/ legal advice and counsel if local communities do not have the capacity and local law enforcement capabilities to implement these laws?

As these issues develop at the policy making level and with policy implementation, I would imagine that several other related topics will eventually arise such as: 1) Ways to prove clear title and ownership of land, 2) regulate land sales, 3) regulating and educating land owners on safe and healthy land development practices. These issues have been prevalent in land sale/development and home-ownership initiatives in the policy work that I have been involved with at the state level. If these issues can be addressed as land-ownership laws are being institutionalized and normalized many of the challenges faced by land sales in the unincorporated areas of the State of Texas could possibly be avoided.

For IIMA and for VIDES volunteers, it would be beneficial to research and to reach out to local legal experts to develop an awareness and education campaign for women and for entire communities about these issues. IIMA and VIDES could either choose to be the agents in the education campaigns or they could choose to offer training for local community residents and help those residents to organize training and awareness sessions. IIMA and VIDES should look to partner with NGOs or other groups that may already be involved in this type of work.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

My last two nights here in New Jersey have been amazing. Last night Mireya, Gloria, Sr. Roxanna, Sr. Glorina,  Sr. Maria Louisa and I gave our farewells and thank-you presentations to the Sisters at the Mary Help of Christians Academy in North Haledon. All of the Sisters have been so warm and loving. It is unbelievable how much they made us feel at home and at ease in a strange new place. I would love to come back and see their smiling faces some day...

After our farewells with the Sisters at North Haledon, the Mary Help of Christians Academy hosted a talent show for its jr. high and high school students and they invited Mireya, Gloria and I to attend. The talent show was magical... There were so many young people performing their best and finally executing acts that they worked on for over two months. The energy in the gym-auditorium was awesome. There was so much love and support in the air. There was so much appreciation and acknowledgement of others and their talents and their worth. It was beautiful to be in a place focused on being and sharing with others. There couldn't have been a better night for Gloria, Mireya and me to share as our final night together with the three of us.

Tonight, is my last night here... I am sad that this experience has to end. I am happy that God has blessed me with this wonderful experience. It has been far richer than I could have ever imagined, and shows that we can never know how great our Lord is and we can never know what wonderful plans He has for us if only we have the courage to let go, trust in Him and to give, love and live freely.

Earlier today, when it was time for Mireya to leave for the airport, I was definitely very sad. Mireya has truly been a wonderful friend and companion throughout these two weeks. I would have been lost if she could not have been here. She always brings so much joy and laughter to anyone and everyone she is with. Mireya was an essential component, a secret ingredient, that made our whole team click. Both, Sister Maria Louisa and Sister Leonor, who traveled from Rome are originally from Mexico and speak primarily Spanish. Sister Roxanna, who is from El Salvador also speaks Spanish and English... Gloria, from Honduras, speaks Spanish and no English. I speak English and practically no Spanish. During these entire two weeks, Mireya patiently spoke English with me and often acted as a translator for Gloria and I. I know that both Gloria and I would have been lost without her. I am so thankful to have shared this experience with her.

Once Mireya left us, I could feel some nervousness in the air between Gloria and I... How would be get along without her? How would communicate with each and coordinate our day's plans? We returned to one of the waiting rooms at the Saint Joseph's Provential House where the older Sisters stay and Gloria picked up an informational brochure from one of the CSW sessions and started to read the English words that she knew out loud. I followed her queue, and started to point to some of the pictures and guess the Spanish word. We continued doing this, giggling at each other's inability to correctly pronounce a few strange words until we ran out of brochures and magazines. I think that for both of us, this was a really good time for us bond... relax, and accept each other and again, be free and present with each other.

In the afternoon, I was fortunate enough to be invited by Sister Roxanna to tag-a-long with her, Sister Ramona and Gloria on a shopping spree for things that Gloria might be in need of back in Honduras. At first I felt like I may have been intruding on a special experience that Sister Ramona wanted to have with Gloria and Sister Roxanna thinking that since they're all native Spanish speakers that they wanted some time away from all the English at St. Joseph's. I cannot express enough, how happy I am that I was able to join them. Gloria needed a couple pairs of new pants, shoes, and shirts. I had a lot of fun helping to find what sizes she needed and trying to help her find the style of clothes she wanted. Sister Ramona let Gloria and I go off by ourselves so that we had some extra girl-bonding time. My favorite thing that Gloria found and chose was a Snoopy T-Shirt...

Once Gloria had found all that she needed we all headed to Costco so that Sister Ramona could pick up a few essentials for the Convent. The whole time I was thinking to myself what an amazing "American" experience this must be for Gloria, Costco??? At Costco we also split up into two teams - the Sisters and Gloria and me. This too was a wonderful time for me and Gloria navigating through jammed packed Costco snack and candy isles trying to find everything on our list.

To end Gloria's big "American" adventure, Sister Ramona thought it would be appropriate to swing by McDonald's for dinner. I agreed. What could get more American than a trip to the mall, then to Costco and a McDonald's cheeseburger with fries. I do not know if Gloria really liked her cheeseburger all that much, but this afternoon and evening was a perfect way to end our mission. Today, on our last day together, we really got to bond. I think that sharing this together, and sharing our fear of Mireya leaving us really helped our relationship to grow, even if it was just for a few hours.

My experience here at the UN and in New Jersey could not have been better. It was so much more than I expected it to be, and for being such a short mission trip, it has been undeniably spiritually enriching and uplifting. From the issues addressed at this year's CSW, which focused on the need for the development of rural women and girls and their ability to empower themselves, to my experience with Gloria, my friendship with Mireya, my experience with Sister Rose... It was truly beautiful and could be nothing but a gift from God.

I hope that VIDES and the Salesian Sisters find some of my recommendations and my report beneficial to their future work and the future development of their organization, and I hope that this is not the last time that I am blessed to work with the Salesian Sisters.

I am so grateful to all my friends, family and love ones for all of your support and prayers. I could not have experienced this without each and every one of you. Thank you for accompanying me on my mission. You all have been such blessings and gifts in my life. Thank you all for sharing all your love with me. I know that my mission and my journey does not end here. There is so much love to discover and to share with the world. Thank you so much for being a part of this with me and thank you for sharing Christ's love with me! I pray that we all can continue to share with others the part of Christ that lives in us. I pray that we all experience the love of Christ through the love and lives of each other.

... Throughout these next several weeks, I will continue to use my blog to share more on the information and discussions from the UN 56th CSW. I realize that not many of you can even know our days consisted of or what kind of information we were soaking in day after day. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Today, March 8 2012, was International Women's Day and here at the United Nation's 56th Commission on the Status Women hundreds of women and women's rights organizations joined together to celebrate their day. Today was a truly beautiful day, the sun was shining and the weather was warm. Everyone was joyfully representing their women's groups and standing up proudly on the issues most important to them.

After this morning's Document Briefing, where the CSW organizers meet with NGO's and Civil Society Organizations to update them on the developments and status of the official CSW Document and Recommendations everyone was invited to participate in the International Women's Day celebration. All the participants wore yellow sashes and wrote their "cause" on their sash.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tonight, I am working on my report to Sister Mary Louisa and Sister Leonor from this week's meetings and information sessions. My experience here at the UN's Commission on Status of Women has renewed my fervor international development and necessity for our world to include everyone and to allow everyone to participate fully in our global society. Everyone deserves to the opportunity to give their all to the world.

It has been invigorating to listen to distinguished international representatives from all over the world use the same rhetoric and proclaim the same beliefs that have been the source of my inspirations. It is true that all people throughout the world should be viewed as agents of change. Everyone has something to give and deserves the opportunity to give it. Every single person is created individually by God and each and every person has been given and specific and distinct mission to fulfill here on Earth.

As I reflect on my day, my mission here and the purpose of my life, I am praying for the soul of Sister Rose. Sister Rose, suffered as stroke early last week and last night she passed. Today, the Sisters here held her funeral. The service was beautiful... I never thought that I come here, to participate at the UN and experience a funeral... I did not have the opportunity to meet Sister Rose, but from the stories shared by the other sisters, she seemed like a beautiful person. She enjoyed gardening and was known for maintaining the ground around the convent. When she could no longer garden, they told us that she enjoyed baking and was always happy pleasing and serving others.

During the funeral mass in the small crowded chapel, I was seated in the back row, directly in the middle of the aisle leading to the alter. Sister Rose in her coffin were directly in front of me, resting there at Christ's feet in front of the large crucifix. It was like Christ was welcoming his servant home. I thought about her devotion and commitment of her entire life to serving the Lord. I thought about the joy she must have brought to others and must have brought to him. I looked up at Christ, hanging there on the cross with his arms open and welcoming us to come to him. I was reminded of Christ's loving embrace that is always there inviting us. I was reminded that in life we are never alone and that Christ is always there to accompany us on our journey towards Him. Thinking of Christ's open arms, I pray that He help me to open my heart so that I can fully accept and experience His loving embrace. I am reminded to Trust in Him, and that through fulfilling His will, we will be fulfilled and the others around us will be too. There was a sense of joy in the room, Sister Rose lived her life with and for the love Christ...

Monday, March 5, 2012

On Sunday, we had most of the day to ourselves. Thanks to Sister Denise, we got to see the Paterson Museum which was an awesome experience for me and would be for anyone who is fascinated by history. Paterson, New Jersey was one of the first planned industrial cities in America. The city was founded by Alexander Hamilton. The Paterson Museum includes some of the first Colt Revolvers, the world’s first motorized submarine, air-craft engines from Wright Aero Corps Paterson, and silk looms that made Paterson the largest silk manufacturing city in the world.

At the museum, we ran into Mohammad who is an artist and works at the museum. He recognized Sister Denise immediately and greeted her with a huge smile and a warm welcome. The Salesian Sisters were called to Paterson in 1908 and have been here ever since. You can that the community really loves the Salesians as they are greeted with smiles everywhere we go. The Salesians are part of the community here and as evidenced by the way they are greeted and loved by everyone, they have really shown the love of Christ in the work they do here.  

Mohammad gave us a brief history of the museum and explained to us some of the new exhibits they were bringing in and exhibits that were on their way out. One such exhibit was from their Jewish Heritage/ History Exhibit. He was explaining that the exhibit had officially ended, but the family that had donated the artifacts to museum had allowed the museum to keep them a little longer than they had originally planned. Mohammad then went on to explain how the kind the family was and his relationship has developed with them even though they are Jewish and his name is Mohammad. He told us that as an expression of his friendship towards the family that he constructed a Menorah for the family out wire. He was beaming at the opportunity to share the friendship between himself and the Jewish family. This again, was another experience of Christ’s love that we experience with our relationships as we accompany each other on our life journey.

After the museum visit, we had the rest of the afternoon off. As usual for me, when I get some time to myself I like to spend it running or moving around outdoors. Today, Gloria decided that she wanted to join me outside in the cold instead of spending the few hours up in her room. Knowing that she was most likely not  planning  to join me in running round and round and up and down the hills that the Mary Help of Christians Academy is located on, I was afraid that she would get bored and cold. However, she surprised me. She started out walking around the loop that I was taking for my run. I typically run about an 8 minute mile pace, so I figured I’d run for 40 minutes and round that off to 5 miles.

Gloria must have gotten bored with walking around my loop, that went around the front parking lot, along the soccer field, up, behind and around the school building and back down to the parking lot,  because about 20 minutes into my run she stopped. She had found a small ball and began kicking it around the small soccer field in front of the school. Being a bit overly obsessive about my running, I had already decided that I was running for at least 40 minutes and would shoot for 50. Once I was reaching the 39 minute mark, I noticed Gloria sitting on the grass with the ball at her feet. I reached the 40 minute mark and trotted over to her. She got up and I guess asked if I wanted to kick the ball around, because she kicked the ball over to me.

I have never played soccer/ futbol in my life and was a little worried that I would totally make a fool of myself if I accepted her invitation to play by kicking the ball back… I kicked the ball back to her and she passed it back to me. We ended up passing the ball and forth, laughing at each other’s clumsiness (more like laughing at my clumsiness) for a good 15 minutes. Even though I speak practically no Spanish and Gloria speaks no English, we had a terrific time with each other taking a break from being cooped up in conference rooms.

Once we both grew tired of running around after a little green ball, we agreed to cool down by walking around the school and convent grounds. We hiked all the way up to the top of the hill, where there is a cemetery and spotted a total of six deer. Watching the deer we stood quietly, wondering when they would run away… The beauty and language of nature is universal.

On the way down the hill from the cemetery, there is a playground. Gloria pointed to the swings and smiled. I smiled back and nodded my head yes. I am so happy that she took the initiative, once again, asking if I wanted to accompany her on the swing set. I had been eyeing the playground since the day I arrived in New Jersey. We swung on the swings pointing to the skyline of the city that could be seen in the distance and we attempted to communicate using random vocabulary we shared.

This afternoon was special, I found the spirit of St John Bosco and St. Mary Marzarello’s in my afternoon accompanied by Gloria. We were there together, just being present and offering each other much needed release and escape from our long days spent in conferences and information sessions. Now reflecting back on my day… I realize that the experience that Gloria and I shared being together is what life is all about. We need to be present with each other and accompany each other on our life journeys, because it is through each other that we encounter Christ. Christ is always with us. We should always be walking with Him as we are walking towards Him.

I know that I am here in Paterson to participate at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women and to help find ways to advance the status of rural women throughout the world, but when I decided to join VIDES, I knew that my main mission, my life mission, is to find Christ’s love through accompanying and loving others. What I am doing at the UN and the ways that I am trying to help IIMA/ Salesian Sisters in their international development and mission work is definitely important, but it wouldn’t be important at all if I did not live out the values that the Salesians teach every day: truth of self, freedom to love, accompaniment through reason, religion and loving kindness) with everyone that I meet. I think that this experience is helping me find how to live those values consistently throughout all levels of my life. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Most of our days at the UN consist of attending various conferences and presentations on issues and challenges  that rural women are facing all over the world. It has been particularly interesting to consider these challenges in relation to the challenges that rural communities face here in the United States. Similar issues come up again and again, even though they are usually on different scales. There is a tremendous need for opening the avenues of communication between people living in rural and isolated communities and those making policy decisions, there is a need for capacity building in community organizations, there is a need for leadership training in those communities and a need to engage local leaders and organizations in decision making and accountability/ reporting processes.

Saint John Bosco at Saint Patrick's Cathedral
Another interesting topic that has been prevalent in many discussions is this issue of land rights and property rights for rural women. Many countries have made efforts to legally and statutorily protect the land rights of women, but in of these cases the women are not aware of these rights and the authorities have the ability or capacity to enforce these rights. Through my work in the Texas Senate, I have found that often issues regarding land rights and titles are even at times difficult to monitor in rural areas of the United States. I cannot even imagine the needed reforms, resources and local capacity building needed to implement property rights in many of the rural places in under-developed countries.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

As I mentioned before, we have limited to access to internet and we have been very busy with preparing presentations for the Salesian Sisters/ International Institute of Mary Help of Christians and VIDES NGO side event for the UN.

Our team consists of 9 members: Sister Mary Louisa, Sister Leonor, Sister Roxanna, Sister Roberta, Sister Glorina, Gloria, Mireya, Janet (who works in the Mary Help of Christians Academy Development Office) and myself. Each one of us has a special roll in executing our presentations, but the most inspirational and motivating member of our team is Gloria Maricela who is traveling for the first time outside the boundaries of Honduras. She is with us to give her story of success in overcoming hardships with the help of the Salesian Sisters working in the IIMA. Gloria Maricela is 22 years old and comes from a poor rural village in Honduras. She is currently enrolled in IHER, a distance education program run by IIMA that provides instructional lessons to isolated students in rural areas of Honduras via radio. This program supplements radio lessons with lessons held at the school in the town of Ojojona where they also administer exams. The school in Ojojona is a two hour walk from Gloria’s home. This structure allows students like Gloria to work during the day to continue to help support their families. Gloria is now in her first year of high school and has dreams of going to college to become a teacher. She would then like to return to Ojojona to give back to the children in the rural villages of Honduras.

Gloria’s story and her presence here is truly amazing. I am in awe of her confidence and courage. She has come so far from home without knowing any English and experiencing and environment completely alien to her. She has coped with the transition and ups and downs of these two weeks better than I have. Gloria makes me so thankful for all the blessings that I have been given in life, and inspires me to follow my dreams and God’s plan for me freely, no matter what the costs. I have so much respect for Gloria as a woman who has accomplished so much. Today, as I write, Gloria is sitting across the table from me. She is dressed in her traditional Honduran dress that is cotton and embellished with bright red rick-rack, yellow lace and crocheted flowers. Her long silky black hair is parted down the middle and two beautiful braids hang on each side of her delicate face. She is beautiful and she is strong. She is truly a leader for her the people of her country. I am honored to share this experience with her. I pray that I can one day live with her courage, resilience, and determination.

I told Gloria, in very poor Spanish, that one day I would like to visit her country of Honduras. She laughed at my attempt, but told me in English that she will be waiting.

My role in our UN team will be to share a testimonial from, Agnes Wasuk, who was supposed to be part of this experience here in New York, but because of travel difficulties is unable to attend. Agnes Wasuk’s story, like that of Gloria’s, is one of amazing strength and courage. Agnes Wasuk was a displaced woman in South Sudan and was hired by the Salesian Sisters/ IIMA as a nurse in their Primary Health Center. While working with the Salesian Sisters she learned other skills like tailoring, noodle making, was an adult educator and was trained in counseling for women and children. Agnes still works with the women in South Sudan in helping women re-integrate into their communities, giving talks on Women’s Roles in Building Society and health education training for women in the field. She credits the Salesian Sisters and IIMA with helping her to become a leader for the rural women in South Sudan.

This experience at the UN with the Salesian Sisters who have done so much for the advancement of Rural Women all over the world has truly been a blessing. I have so much respect and am in awe of the great work they have been doing across the globe. It is an honor to share this experience with them.

As we begin the end of our first week here at the CSW, we will be listening to presentations from various government representatives and NGO's from all over the world to learn about the status of rural women and their role in development as well as to learn the best practices so that the IIMA and VIDES missions can implement those practices and methods into their projects.

Sister Mary Louisa and Sister Leonor have asked Mireya and I to write up reports at the end of our experience and submit those to them to share with other members of the IIMA organization.

Again, I cannot express how honored I am to be here and to contribute to the great work that is being done through the Salesians Sisters, IIMA and VIDES.