by Nuria Calduch-Benages, MN
The Bible teaches us that at crucial times in the history of Israel there was always a woman there to change around the course of events. We just have to think of the wise strategies of Shifra and Puah, the two Israelite midwives who, in open defiance of the Pharaoh’s orders, respected the lives of the newborn babies. The Pharaoh was afraid of losing power, and so he decided first of all to oppress the Hebrews with hard labour and then to kill all the Hebrew babies in the country. These were orders from the highest authority of the empire, orders that condemned the innocent to death. He regarded the life of the people to be a threat and he wished to suppress it by all means possible. The midwives feared God, and to fear God is to respect life. They were not afraid of risking their own lives in order to save the innocent. They ignored the Pharaoh’s order because that order was an outrage against life. It represented a structure of death that no woman could ever accept. While he suppressed it, they fostered it. Shifra and Puah, two wise women, two health professionals, two promoters of divine action on behalf of life.
Many women who came after them, have opted and continue to opt for life, even at the risk of placing their lives in danger or of living in fear and under threat. This was the case with two religious sisters whose stories spread around the world in the space of a few moments. I am referring to Geneviève Uwamariya of the community of Our Lady of Namur in Rwanda, auditor at the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, and the Salesian Doris Barbero, head of the San José elementary school in the town of Leava in Western Samoa.
The Rwandan sister lost her father and several relatives during the genocide that took place in her country in 1994. Three years later she went to visit a group of prisoners, among whom she met some of the authors of the genocide. One of these was the person who had murdered her family, one who had been a childhood friend. On hearing his confession and plea for mercy, Geneviève embraced him and said: “You are, and will continue to be, my brother”. These were words of forgiveness, reconciliation and authentic liberation. From that moment forward, a new life had begun for both of them.
The Salesian teacher managed to save the lives of 320 children and adolescents through a fast and courageous decision. In very little time she gathered all the pupils together and led them to the mountains without knowing where they would end up. Because of that, they escaped the tsunami that devastated almost the whole island of Samoa.
These women are following in the footsteps of their biblical ancestors with lives that are living witnesses to the Word, testimonies that support life and generate life.