March 19, 2019
Protecting Femininity and Human Dignity in Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Policies

Statement by H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See

At the Side Event entitled
“Protecting Femininity and Human Dignity in
Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Policies Today”

United Nations, New York, 19 March 2019


Your Excellencies, Distinguished Panelists, Dear Friends,
I am very happy to welcome you to this afternoon’s event on protecting femininity and human dignity in women’s advancement and gender equality policies today, which the Holy See is pleased to sponsor together with the Center for Family and Human Rights.
During these weeks of the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), we have been focused on social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure. More specifically, we have been examining policies and practices with regard to unpaid care and domestic work, education, health care, housing, energy, water, sanitation that can impact the status of women and girls in society.
These are important and practical considerations.
But all of them depend on a preliminary consideration: the understanding we have of what it means to be a woman or a girl. If our anthropological starting point is off, it will obviously impact the proposed solutions.
Reading the preparation documents and the drafts of the proposed outcome document for this 63rd Session, for example, it’s hard not to notice the overwhelming emphasis given to woman’s economic advancement. In 1836, John Stuart Mill coined the term homo economicus to refer to man as a rational, self-interested being concentrated above all on the accumulation of wealth and resources. In reading the documents for this year’s CSW, one might wonder whether the basic understanding of woman and girls is as a mulier economica.
To take one example: While there has been a fitting emphasis on recognizing and valuing the unpaid care and domestic work carried out by women, at the same time, the documents refer to this labor of love almost exclusively as a “burden.” Therefore they regard it as something that the international community should work to “reduce” and “redistribute” in order to increase women’s productivity outside the home through participation in the market economy. There’s an implicit anthropology at work here, prioritizing woman’s contributions to the labor market over care work, as if outside work, and what it can provide, ought to be woman’s most important values; as if economic empowerment, in competition with men, is the most important indicator of women’s advancement and equality.
We must ask whether such ideas are truly respectful of women as women, whether they truly encompass what women most deeply desire, or whether they are trying to make women more competitive according to masculine ways of ordering life, society and economic realities. Woman is more than a female homo economicus.
Today’s event is entitled “Protecting femininity and human dignity in women’s empowerment and gender equality policies today.” The point of the title is to emphasize that as we think about social protections, access to public services, and sustainable infrastructure, it is important not to sacrifice the dignity and distinctiveness of woman in the process.
True respect for woman starts with accepting, indeed reverencing, her according to all aspects of her humanity. It involves creating the social conditions for her to live freely and fully, without discrimination, according to her feminine genius, the special wisdom she has in caring for the intrinsic dignity of everyone, in nurturing life and love and in developing others’ gifts. When women are given the opportunity to thrive in full appreciation for all their talents and potential, the whole of society benefits.
One of the most important contexts in which the full dignity of women needs to be acknowledged, promoted and protected is with regard to marriage, motherhood and family life. Women cannot flourish when they are the victims of prejudice — and one of the most common forms of discrimination against women today happens with regard to the exercise of the maternal meaning of their femininity.
The unique value and dignity of motherhood in some societies and some versions of feminism is insufficiently defended, appreciated and advanced, leaving women culturally and legally in a position to have to choose between their intellectual and professional development and their personal growth as wives and mothers. Women’s essential contributions to the development of society through their dedication to their marriage and to raising the next generation are inadequately respected. Sometimes their invisible and often heroic service is even disparaged as an antiquated and unwholesome model of feminine life.
Such criticism does not come from a genuine appreciation of woman in her totality and her true equality, in complementarity and reciprocity, with man. Rather it often flows from a reductive notion of womanhood that sacrifices essential aspects of woman’s identity to enable her, so it seems, better to compete with men on a masculine playing field. Such flawed anthropologies, which define equality as identity with man in all things, prevent women from being fully themselves, something that impoverishes both women and all of society.
That is why it is essential for all those who seek to promote the cause of women’s equality, dignity and rights, who seek their integral advancement, to advocate and safeguard that social protections, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure be adapted to this fuller anthropology of woman, inclusive of marriage, motherhood, and family, rather than requiring women to bracket those realities in order to have access to social protections, services and structures.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance” and that the “family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Social protections must therefore be given in a particular way to women as wives and moms who work part-time or full-time or who choose to make the care of their family their full-time occupation.
Humanity owes its survival to the choice women make not just to welcome children but raise them to be virtuous and authentically human: mothers give children the trust and security they need to develop their personal identity and positive social bonds. Our future is already mirrored on how we, as individuals and as a society, support mothers to raise strong and healthy families.
We need more than words condemning all forms of unjust discrimination against women. We need more than social protections, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure that allow women to take up work outside the home or even to enable them to meet their families’ needs without needing to sever their maternity from their femininity. What is required is an effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women, concentrating on all areas of women's nature and life and beginning with a universal recognition of their dignity.
We need to help women, and men, and children, better appreciate the full greatness of woman, which includes not just the gifts she shares in common with man but also the unique gifts that pertain to her femininity, like her capacity for motherhood understood not just as a reproductive act, but as a spiritual, educational, affective and cultural way of life.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1988 apostolic exhortation On the Dignity of Woman, a “mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb. This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude toward human beings — not only toward her own child, but toward every human being — that profoundly marks the woman's personality.”
Woman is someone born with space for another. By nature she has the capacity to care for human beings at their most vulnerable initial stages, which is something that forms her with a special sensitivity for the weakest and most defenseless. She is therefore naturally concerned for the intrinsic worth of every person, no matter how young or old, rich or poor, strong or vulnerable, healthy or sick, wanted or undesired, economically productive or incapacitated, worldly influential or insignificant.
That is why, in protecting woman’s femininity and full human dignity, we are buttressing perhaps the greatest social protection of all, woman herself. Her equality and empowerment should never involve being forced to adapt to male categories in society, but in having society adapt increasingly to her femininity and dignity. Our superb panel will elaborate on this further.
Thank you for coming to participate in the conversation.