Poverty often has a woman’s face

foto per editoriale credito andrea floris-flickr
Photo by Andrea Floris

Katarína Hulmanová - born in Slovakia, Central Europe, graduate in programming and theology. She is married, has four children and one grandchild. During the epoch of totalitarism she was involved in Catholic dissent and worked in the field of lay apostolate as a support and guide to small communities in the university environment, helping also with the reproduction of materials for underground Church and education. After the fall of communism in Central Europe she took care of her children and as they grew older, she was involved in lay apostolate, particularly in the area of women´s catholic organizations. She has been working for the Forum of Christian Institutions in Slovakia and is currently its president.

Slovakia is a Central European country that came to existence as a result of the peaceful separation of Czecho-Slovakia. Most of its inhabitants claim to be members of the Catholic Church.

Within the framework of the Year of Mercy, the Bishops´ Conference of Slovakia sometimes ago promoted a meeting open to everyone who wanted to attend. The main topic “Vocation to live mercy” was inspired from the verse of the Holy Scripture: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mk 5:19). After that gathering, we organized a workshop dedicated to “poverty and other socially endangered groups” which awakened a great interest among the participants. It is important to talk about the problems of people who live in extreme poverty, but it is also imperative on a daily basis to be close to those who, while leaning over the abyss, struggle and fight for their work – often insufficiently paid –, for their own dignity and the dignity of their family. It is quite difficult to help these people, particularly women, because this poverty is hidden. It is challenging to help them overcome their problems because it is required not only to open our wallets, but to start a ‘true’ relationship by letting our neighbours enter our lives and our world. It is important to knock on their hearts with respect and reverence, and at the same time to be able to open our own hearts to them.

There are many reasons causing women poverty in our contemporary society. First of all, they are often paid less than men for the same work, and very often women prefer jobs oriented to the care of people like teaching, nursing, social services, all jobs not sufficiently remunerated in our society! Moreover in divorce cases, the courts often entrust the care of children to women, but unfortunately men often refuse to pay the maintenance and put women financially in great distress. As we know, taking care of children is very demanding not only economically. Consequently, often it is not possible for women to get involved in a normal working process. In fact they prefer to do jobs that enable them to include the care of the little children and/or of the elderly parents. That is the reason why they do not usually choose works that include a lot of travelling, high level of responsibility, positions of managers, overtime work... This “motherhood oriented” choice of work leads to lower income and lower pensions for women. The service of women to life is not a service to their career!

Supporting other people represents an unseparable part of the mission and vocation of each one of us. None of us can eradicate poverty just by himself or herself, but we can help each other. The work of Catholic charitable institutions, associations and movements cannot replace each one’s effort in this area. Helping the people in need is not just a question of money. Many of us desire to contribute, but often we simply don´t know how to do it. Helping the poor, or helping in general, is not as easy as one may think. What is the just way to help? What is right for me and what is right for poor people? Do I violate their dignity? Do they become addicted to my help? Isn´t my help to the poor only a patch to silence a bitter feeling of injustice and shame because I am well off, and my friend – despite the fact that she works a lot – keeps moving up and down, unable to get out of the vicious circle of poverty?

Pope Francis said the following words in his address to the representatives of civil society in Paraguay on July 11, 2015: “To really help people, the first thing is for us to be truly concerned for individual persons, and I'm thinking of the poor here, valuing them for their goodness. Valuing them, however, also means being ready to learn from them. The poor have much to teach us about humanity, goodness, sacrifice and solidarity. As Christians, moreover, we have an additional reason to love and serve the poor; for in them we see the face and the flesh of Christ, who made himself poor so to enrich us with his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).

Putting bread on the table, putting a roof over the heads of one’s children, giving them health and an education – these are essential for human dignity, and business men and women, politicians, economists, must feel challenged in this regard... In economics, in business and in politics, what counts first and foremost, in every instance, is the human person and the environment in which he or she lives.“

Nowadays in Europe, we witness a growing phenomenon that poverty does not concern only unemployed people, but it affects more and more also those who have a job or work. Working poverty or new poverty is a threat robbing people of hope and perspective.

A friend of mine – as a result of a difficult situation in her family – has been raising her three children only by herself. She lives in the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, and her mother lives 300 kilometers away. This friend does not want to leave the capital, because it would be difficult for her to find a new job in her native region. I have known her for several years and all this time she has been employed. In a critical stage of her life she had borrowed money and wasn´t able to pay it back, and as a result of this situation her property was subject to distraint. Her family has been struggling to maintain even a low standard of life. Each illness, hobby of the children, or even a purchase of new glasses puts this fragile balance between expenses and income at risk. They have tried to get a public-assistance dwelling and the daughter has left the high school to find a job and help her mother. I admire their perseverance and courage in fighting this difficult situation and this is the case of working persons. The difference between social benefits and salaries is insignificant in Slovakia. In fact, sometimes people get paid for their work so little that it would be “more convenient ” to live from social benefits.

This story may seem unimportant compared to the vast problems of the world like migration crisis, violence, wars, illnesses, hunger, ecology crisis. But it seems to me that many women (not only in my country) are deprived of their sense of human dignity, because their dignity is not appreciated at work, and they cannot ensure a dignified life for themselves and for those entrusted to their care. It seems to me we are confronting a serious problem rooted in the system of contemporary society. Thi gives me a push to keep acting upon the invitation of Pope Francis: “The poor are the flesh of Christ... We must respect the poor. We must not use the poor person merely as an instrument to placate our guilt. To learn from the poor, with all the realities they experience, all of the values they uphold.

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