Sister Maureen Fleming, School Sisters of Notre Dame, is co-ordinator of Pastoral Outreach Activities at St. Luke’s Parish in Westport. She spoke to Westport Sunrise Rotary Friday about her work through the United Nations for the rights women around the world.
Sister Maureen called herself “a teacher down to my toes.” She has spent her life teaching, much of that to those in need.
In 1995 she became one of the first teachers at Caroline House, a literacy center in Bridgeport started by her order. The center was named for one of four SSND nuns who came to this country over 150 years ago to help educate immigrant women and their children.
Caroline House today “helps immigrant women acquire the knowledge and skills to improve their own lives and the lives of their children by promoting family literacy.” Each semester the center teaches 50 immigrant women and 25 children, with the goal of preparing the children to enter English only Kindergartens.
Sister Maureen now spends her time with the United Nations. The SSND is an NGO registered with the United Nations. Sister Maureen participates in conferences and activities about women’s and children’s rights.
In many countries the biggest human rights violation is that women and children are not considered human. At one point a group she was working with asked the UN General Assembly to make women’s and children’s rights human rights. After some debate the motion was defeated.
Hillary Clinton asked the chair if she might address the Assembly. Granted permission, she talked directly to five representatives who had voted against the measure, citing statistics about the status of these rights in their countries. A revote was taken and the measure passed.
Talking about another important issue, Sister called listening to stories of women who had been trafficked “mind blowing.” Women from many countries come to the UN to “share their problems” – a 13 year old Yemenese girl who was married at nine and divorced at 10, and girls in war torn countries who had lost their parents and had no access to health care or education.
And some of the securities we take for granted – water, food and peace – are not facts of daily life throughout large parts of the world. She talked about areas where dry weather had dried up a river, reduced the fish population the community lived on and so changed its lives and livelihood.
Sister talked about the Year of the Potato in 2008. This UN event celebrated a staple that originated in Peru. Part of the celebration was to have been a display of 19 different types and colors of Peruvian potatoes. But customs agents confiscated them at JFK airport – and no amount of protest could get them returned. The purpose of the event was to call attention to the importance of the vegetable in providing food security and eliminating poverty and malnutrition.
She was asked whether she has seen women’s rights violation in this area. Yes. She said she used to go to Devore’s Bakery for coffee every morning. One day she saw police cruisers surrounding the building. She learned that there was a brothel operating in the apartment above the bakery – two blocks from where she lived.
Another was that some Korean women working in nail spas have been brought to this country against their will or under false pretenses – one clue being a male always present in the spa collecting tips for the women.
Photo by Hal Levy