Women: The Backbone of Society

Each year on the second Sunday of May, we honor and celebrate the lives of mothers. In our own lives, our mothers are the source of our being and a font of cherished memory. Around the world, it is the courage and resilience of mothers that keep families intact through the trials of poverty, civil conflict and natural disaster.

G. Jefferson Price III has traveled the world for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), documenting our response to some of the world’s most critical emergencies. He recently wrote about the heroism of women in the developing world in a piece that was published by the Christian Science Monitor: “In the world's harshest places, men struggle, as women do, to help their families survive. But the heaviest burdens often fall on the women, whose children are with them throughout the day as they work in the fields or do domestic chores.”

These women, he says, “are the indispensable backbone of society, the glue holding their families together.”

I saw a vivid example of that courage on my most recent trip to Indonesia, where I visited the communities affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami. We traveled to Banda Aceh, a city on the tip of Sumatra that was devastated by the massive waves. There, I met Marwani “Anik” Halijah, a tsunami survivor. As we sat with her in the kitchen of our office in Banda Aceh, she told us an amazing story of tragedy, despair and finally a triumph of spirit.

Anik’s 2-year-old daughter had gone to the beach that morning with her brother and sister-in-law. When the earthquake hit, she and her husband raced in a panic to the beach to find them. They were all safe, but then they had to run back to their home to escape the raging waters. Anik and her family climbed up to the roof of their house as the waters rose. She said that they all survived with God’s help. After a wait of some hours, they all came down from the rooftop and fled to the hills surrounding the town. There, she was cramped into a makeshift shelter with her brother and sister-in-law, her father and mother, and her husband and daughter. She told us of the difficulty of living together with so many people in such tight quarters, menaced by snakes and with little food to share.

Anik, who had been a secretary for a small local business organization, lost her job, as did her husband. She was saddened by the tragedy around her and by the conditions in the camp for displaced people where she was living, and fell into a month-long depression. Then, she made a decision that the tsunami would not overcome her. “Nothing can steal my spirit,” she said. “Not even the tsunami.” Her family came first and she realized that she had to be a support for them as her husband remained unemployed.

She also wanted to help her neighbors as they began to rebuild their lives, and applied for a job with the American humanitarian agency that was working in her area — which happened to be Catholic Relief Services (CRS). At the time, Anik (a devout Muslim) did not realize that CRS was a Catholic agency — only that it was helping people in need. Anik is now a field officer in the CRS Banda Aceh office. “Working with CRS has helped me cope with the trauma that I felt after the tsunami,” she said. “It gives me a chance to help other tsunami survivors, which makes me happy.”

I’m happy to report that there is new life in Banda Aceh. Communities are rebuilding, families are starting over and peace continues to hold in a land wracked by years of civil conflict. And there will soon be new life in Anik’s family. She will be mother to a second child, expected sometime in the late summer.

Ken Hackett is the President of Catholic Relief Services.

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