Making a difference – one girl at a time

by Deirdre Mullan


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I grew up on the island of Ireland, but my world was expanded by my uncle, who worked as a migrant priest in Peru and Honduras. He would tell my cousins and me many stories about how it was for girls in the places where he worked. As a child I had a pen-friend in Peru and tried to think about how life was for Sol, who lived in the mountains. As a teacher, I remembered the stories and passed on what I had heard to the children in front of me.

Later, I visited my sister working in Kenya and saw firsthand the importance of education in the developing world. At this point I was totally hooked and knew I had to do my part – one girl at a time.

As an Irish Sister of Mercy, I’ve been involved with girls’ education for over 35 years – in Mercy schools and colleges in the United States, England and Ireland. While teaching in the social sciences, I was always very conscious of the importance of raising awareness about the situation of girls worldwide. I used to tell my students what I had witnessed in the Murkura region of Kenya and encouraged them to make use of the excellent education systems that we take as a norm. Later I had the privilege of meeting Bishop Desmond Tutu, when he was U.N. special adviser to the Secretary General on arranged marriages and visiting my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Dublin. Bishop Tutu gave me his blessing and encouraged me to keep moving – one girl at a time!

My current project, called The Mercy Girl Effect is focused on raising awareness and agitating on behalf of girls in the schools and colleges I visit each year. Modeled after the Girl Effect – a popular YouTube-based campaign which tells the story of how education can make a difference in the life of a 12-year-old girl – The Mercy Girl Effect focuses on the situation of students in Mercy schools across the globe. I believe we must all keep our eyes fixed on what is happening as the world, especially as the United Nations prepares to adopt a new developmental agenda in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals. Working at the United Nations and in particular with UNICEF, means I am able to bring the students I visit up-to-date and first-hand information about issues pertaining to the situation of girls: statistics about the selective abortion of girls; female genital mutilation; and the disturbing figure that very year, 14 million girls are married before they turn 16 – a practice that is not limited to the developing world!

I can still recall very clearly how the project on girls began to expand. In 2007, I received a phone call to the Sisters of Mercy’s office at the U.N., where I served as the executive director. On the line was Sr. Maureen Christi, a Sister of Mercy from Philadelphia, who invited me to work with the Mercy Leadership Conference. This is a network of high schools in the United States sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy that has been meeting since 1997. The conference organizers wanted a more global opportunity to offer the students at the annual gathering. It was an ideal opportunity to bring the work of the United Nations to a new generation.

Every summer since then young women from Mercy High Schools gather to learn about what is happening to girls worldwide and commit to do something concrete. Our collective efforts, which we call The Mercy Girl Effect, are for me one of the most alive and challenging projects of my year! The young women are so alive and hope-filled and bubble with mercying and a desire to make a difference. They put into action a motto I hold dear: It is not enough to be compassionate – we must act. Our four-day meeting focuses on global Mercy issues, and students are challenged to think how Catherine McAuley, the Mercy foundress, might respond. The attendees are equipped and taught how to bring the message of the gathering back to their individual schools. Before the students leave, we agree on a common project for the next academic year and pledge to work together to turn words into reality.

Just 10 weeks before we gathered for the conference in June, Boko Haram militants in Nigeria abducted 286 schoolgirls of a similar age to our participants – their “crime” was simply that they wanted an education. The militants’ attack on girls’ education seems to indicate that extremists are afraid of a girl with a book! The girls were aware of the abduction of the school girls and this just focused them more to do what they could to make a difference. Just four days before we arrived for the conference, a father in Tunisia had burned his 13-year-old daughter to death because she walked home from school with a boy in her class.

Each year, we recall the most effective fund-raising methods used and share them with each other – from cake sales to non-uniform days to a “Sudandance” to individual students fasting in solidarity with girls worldwide. All those efforts have produced amazing results. For example, in 2007, The Mercy Girl Effect raised enough money to build built a school in Cambodia. In the years that followed, we’ve helped to refurbish a kitchen and library in Kenya and provided scholarships for girls in Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Haiti and Sudan. In 2012, working with Sr. Cathy Solano, an Australian Sister of Mercy who works in the Nuba Mountain on the border with South Sudan, the girls raised enough money to build a school in Nuba! The Mercy students really get Catherine McAuley’s message that “The poor need help now, not next week.” 

This year’s group of students chose to build on last year’s objective: the new school had been severely disrupted by civil war, so our aim is to provide money for the school feeding program. It will have the double effect of feeding hungry children and encouraging parents to send all their children to school – not just the boys. Bishop Macram Max Gassis, who heads the diocese of El Obeid (which includes Darfur), recently spoke at the U.N., describing the situation in the region:

“Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and many civilians maimed and killed from the constant bombings. There is a food crisis because the people are afraid of the aerial bombardments and are afraid to go into their fields.”

As the new school year begins in the Northern Hemisphere, The Mercy Girl Effect will help to provide the children of the Nuba with much needed food. The students attending this year’s conference recognized that you cannot learn if you are hungry! They have committed to work with me to look at the issues of hunger by being part of the United Nations’ advocacy stance on the right to food and water.  

While many of the students would love to be in contact with the students in Nuba, the lack of access to electricity is challenging. We have, however, been able to link to Sr. Cathy who addressed the gathering through Skype.

I am proud to say that all of this is possible because of the commitment of wonderful school principals, generous and dedicated staff, parents and young women who carry the spirit of Catherine McAuley into our world of 2014. As the fall days approach, I too will be packing my bags to cross this country and Ireland visiting our schools to bring the message of the conference to the student body. 

[Deirdre Mullan, RSM, is a Sister of Mercy from Ireland who served as the executive director of Mercy Global Concern at the United Nations for more than 10 years. In 2011 she became the Director of The Partnership for Global Justice, a network of over 125 small congregations at the U.N. Her present ministry is working with UNICEF to look at ways in which they can partner with religious communities.]