Honouring the social service and care workers who contribute to the wellbeing of vulnerable people in Europe

On the occasion of the International Women’s Day of 8 March, I’d like to pay tribute to the many social service providers – the vast majority of whom are women – who are dedicated to caring for the most vulnerable individuals and families in our society.

In a world rife with inequalities, women social service and care workers are committed to empowering and providing quality services to those in need, be they homeless, impoverished, unemployed, addicted, disabled, elderly, abused, traumatised, exploited, trafficked or undocumented persons. These women deserve our respect and admiration. I’d like to invite everybody to recognise the many achievements they have made through their leadership and contributions to the common good by serving others.

These women provide acts of hope in the midst of distressing situations. Through their multiple interventions in the fields of welfare, housing, health, education and empowering services, they are an inspiration for us all, as they endeavour to improve the status of women and help those in need.

I take many examples from within the Caritas Europa network, which brings me face to face with the reality that 70% of those living in poverty are women. Caritas organisations in the UK, for example, recognise this reality with projects targeted at women – refuge houses to house trafficked women, a women-only safe space day centre for those involved in prostitution, and support programs for victims of domestic violence, just to name a few.

The Caritas Anchor House, a hostel and training centre for the homeless in East London, dedicates 25% of its capacity to helping female rough sleepers, who are a minority among homeless people, but who are at far greater risk of intimidation and violence.

“It did me so much good coming to Caritas Anchor House. Everything was chaotic, hectic and out of control. I needed stability and structure, and was so happy when I got a place here. I never used to think I could achieve anything, so to have done everything I have now is amazing”.
~ Penny, a former resident of Caritas Anchor House

Another example is Caritas Portugal, which created the “Igualitas” project, in partnership with a Commission for Citizenship and Gender Equality. This project provides awareness raising materials about equal opportunities in employment and work-life balance. Caritas Portugal also produced a toolkit with tips to empower women inside their own organization[1].

Committed to solidarity, Caritas staff members throughout Europe are addressing issues of injustice not only in their daily interactions serving people in need, but also vis-à-vis the women within their own organisational structures.

“We witness our faith not only in our words, but also in our deeds, the way we act in the world and towards each other. The dignity and vocation of women should be a subject of serious reflection and high esteem”.
~ Martha Rubiano Skretteberg, Director of Caritas Norway and Board Member of Caritas Europa

Traditionally, social and care work are professions predominately held by women. This reality has long underpinned traditions of humanism, feminism and charity, as women champion the rights and needs of women and girls, among other marginalised groups. Despite efforts of professional and governmental bodies to recruit men into welfare work, women hold a considerable proportion of these jobs, while men tend to gravitate to supervisory and executive positions. Though, this is gradually changing, as some institutions are implementing quotas to advance the percentage of qualified female social workers into management and leadership positions.

Caritas Germany, for instance, has recognised this development and is making concerted efforts to increase the number of women in management positions. In 2011, the Assembly of Delegates manifested this aim in a specific resolution. Today, 82% of the German Caritas staff, but only 28% of the top managers are women. With the programs: Gleichgestellt in Führung gehen (“Bringing equity to leadership”) and Geschlecht. Gerecht gewinnt (“Gender. Equality wins”), co-funded by the European Social Fund, more than 10 regional and local Caritas organisations, including the German Caritas headquarters in Freiburg, are engaging in specific measures to promote gender equality, e.g. mentoring programs, in-house workshops and a scientific study.

“To increase the number of women managers within Caritas, we don’t need to change the women. We need to invest in measures that support women’s commitment to advance, but also to change organisational cultures towards gender equity – for men and women”.
~ Anne-Kerrin Gomer, Project Leader for gender equity in Caritas Germany

Against this reality, I can’t help but acknowledge, on the occasion of the International Women’s Day, the likelihood of institutional and social framings contributing to the imbalance between women and men within the social work profession, and between social work and other professions in general. This is because social work is not only commonly perceived as a female profession, but is also considered to be a low prestige profession, and salaries are lower than in professions dominated by men.

Nonetheless, within Caritas at least, there seems to be consensus of the need to involve men more actively in practical field work to achieve equality between women and men and to transform family households and entire societies. Highlighting structural imbalances in achieving equality in our societies is of vital importance. Along with this, men’s involvement in equality efforts is also needed, i.e. in raising awareness, acting as allies and building capacities toward this end. Engaging men more in social service work implies not only working with individuals on change relative to their personal situations, but also mobilising the support of men and boys in bringing about needed structural changes in society.

Hence, on the occasion of the International Women’s Day, I’d like to pay tribute to the many resilient men and women who provide social services, listening to and caring for the most marginalised people in our society, and actively working to bring about structural changes towards greater equality.

[1] According to a study compiled about the situation of women inside the Caritas Portugal network, 90.5% of the employees are women, with a significant number of women represented on the board, and 57.2% making up women volunteers. The study also finds that women employees have some difficulties organising and conciliating their work with family life, especially when they have children (76.2%).