10 Irish women working with women around the world

From sex education programmes to business networks, women share their experiences

Katie Moore works  for an applied anthropology research organisation with global reach, specialising in sexual and reproductive health in resource-poor environments.

Katie Moore works for an applied anthropology research organisation with global reach, specialising in sexual and reproductive health in resource-poor environments.

 

On International Women’s Day, 10 Irish women working with women around the world - from sex education programmes to business networks and STEM mentoring initiatives - share their experiences.

Katie Moore, Huez, France

Sparse sex education in my all-girls convent school in Drogheda left gaps in my knowledge about sexuality and reproduction that no episode of Eurotrash would have ever been able to fill. I trotted off to university in DCU completely ill-equipped for navigating the highly sexualised environment around me. My undergrad degree came and went, and then I travelled to Nigeria on a United Nations HIV graduate mission. Here, in a so-called “developing” country far from home, I had my first experience working in sexual reproductive health, and learned that there was more at stake than unwanted pregnancy.

That was in 2009. Ten years on, I work for an applied anthropology research organisation with global reach, specialising in sexual and reproductive health in resource-poor environments. I have met the most resilient inspiring women bound in friendship by their inability to access culturally appropriate contraception for family planning in Tanzania; learned lessons in humility and compassion from communities of women stigmatised for severe obstetric fistula in Nepal; and found courage watching bereaved Ethiopian mothers overcome the grief of miscarriage in the arms women’s community groups.

In my observations of women at home and abroad, I have become frustrated by the systems that sometimes seem to define us; denying us bodily autonomy, or limiting our ability to access safe reproductive health care. But I see our strength in adversity, in our support systems, our communities and our friendships.

Catch-ups between friends are as familiar in rural Niger as they are at home and between the belly laughs with new friends, I sometimes close my eyes and imagine (despite the humidity) that it could be me and my posse of wild women in Drogheda; we sure have come a long way in finding our voices and our reproductive rights.

Sarah Whelan, Australia

Sarah Whelan
Sarah Whelan

I run a new Facebook group called Irish Women Living Abroad or Returning to Ireland. This private group and community on Facebook focuses on the needs and interests of Irish women on the move, by themselves and with their families. Members live in every corner of the world, particularly Australia, United States, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates and Canada.

Surprisingly, the second-highest proportion of women in the group are actually living back in Ireland after time spent abroad. Many of them are coming to terms with the settling in process and looking for advice from others who have made the move already.

Soon after arriving back in Sydney, having spent a year and half living in Ireland, I started sharing my experience of moving home and back again in my Facebook blog and realised how much women need to feel connected with other women going through similar experiences. It can be a lonely and isolating living abroad especially once you start a family.

As a transition coach for Irish expats, people reach out to me for support with the emotional impact of living away from home, not to mention the agonising decision for many of them around “should I stay or should I go?” There’s also a large number of people that have moved back to Ireland who are surprised to find out that the repatriation process is the most challenging step in the relocation process. Reverse culture shock is extremely common in returning expats, sadly resulting in many leaving again.

Naturally, I found that mostly women were reaching out to me, so I thought, why not have a place for Irish women to come together to talk about all things related to living abroad, as well as share insights and experiences of moving back home. The Facebook group is a safe space which encourages confidential, open and honest communication. Discussion centres around issues such as the often unspoken and difficult parts of living abroad: self doubt, worry, stress, grief, guilt, indecision, feeling vulnerable and stuck. Being part of a group helps to normalise the feelings, and in many ways breaks down the isolation so many women feel.

Aisling Walsh, Guatemala

Q’anil, a key symbol from the Mayan cosmovision, means the seed of life or the universe’s creative forces. It symbolises harmony, the fruits of love and shared understanding. These values are at the heart of the The Centre for Training, Healing and Transpersonal Research - Q’anil.

Aisling Walsh at Q’anil, a feminist space for learning, healing and creating community in Guatemala
Aisling Walsh at Q’anil, a feminist space for learning, healing and creating community in Guatemala

Q’anil has been central to my existence in Guatemala for the last three years, first as a student in their innovative and unique diploma ‘Bodies, Sexuality and Eroticism’, then as a participant in their ‘Reconnection Therapy Process’, and now as a volunteer. It is a space where I found friendship, community, deep learning and personal transformation.

Founded in Guatemala in 2009 by feminist anthropologist and survivor of Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict, Yolanda Aguilar, Q’anil is a growing community of activists and scholars that focuses on experiential learning, healing and research.

Q’anil works primarily, though not exclusively with women, particularly social activists, survivors of sexual violence, women’s human rights defenders and members of the LGBTQ+ community using a methodology that blends theoretical and experiential learning with therapeutic body work while addressing themes such as decoloniality, feminism, accompaniment of survivors of sexual violence and autonomous sexuality.

Its central aim is to politicise pleasure and address individual and collective healing as a form of justice, which could perhaps, only have come about in a context such as Guatemala, so deeply marked by extremes of racial and sexual violence, oppression and injustice. As a volunteer I have been supporting communications, research and fundraising initiatives and, if all goes according to plan, I will be collaborating with them throughout my PHD at NUI Galway on the concept of healing justice in post-conflict transformation.

Leonie Keane, Waitemata, New Zealand

I am a yoga teacher. Every day I have women on my mat from all walks of life, age groups, different abilities and lifestyles. The one thing that binds us is a sisterhood of support, encouragement and protection. Oftentimes I encounter “rushing women” on their yoga mat, trying to be the perfect wife, mother, daughter, CEO, cook, influencer and a size 2. In an effort to keep up with everybody’s expectations, they have lost sense of themselves. As a collective, the yoga community works to bring us back to our source, reintroducing ourselves to our intuition, our bodies, our breath and our mind. It’s not always an easy reunion, years of tension has to be undone. But it is the most rewarding journey any of us can ever embark on.

Leonie Keane
Leonie Keane

Noreen Crocker, Launceston, Australia

Noreen Crocker in Tasmania.
Noreen Crocker in Tasmania.

I have worked with women and their families in a number of guises since 1989, two years after I emigrated from Ireland to Tasmania. I’ve been with women as they’ve birthed their babies, adjusted to their unexpected journeys with premature or sick babies, established their families, and met and overcome their many life’s challenges. I’ve listened to women’s life stories, relived their birth experiences with them, shed tears with them as their raw emotions spilt forth, helped them to dry their tears and held them in their moments of joy, fear and sadness.

I’ve seen women meet all kinds of challenges, overcome a myriad of obstacles, and grow strong and fierce with love, courage and a fiery determination. Their energy, passion and resilience have been my life source... what a privileged and amazing profession is the profession of a neonatal nurse/child health nurse/midwife/lactation consultant. In the workforce I believe there’s nothing to compare, although in life, the role of a fierce tiger mum surpasses it daily.

Working with women has given me the strength to consider my own story, identify my past challenges, deal with them in a healthier way. Working with women has allowed me to grow from a fragile, broken woman, who chose to leave everyone and everything I knew in order to save myself, into the strong woman I am today.

Elizabeth Kelleher, Melbourne, Australia

Following a stint of backpacking, I set up home in Melbourne in 2012 and secured work with Homefront, Sacred Heart Mission. Homefront is a crisis accommodation programme supporting women over the age of 25 who are experiencing homelessness. I am now programme coordinator, heading up a team of women working alongside women who are navigating a significant human right violation of not having a home.

Homelessness is an already complex issue, but this is further complicated for women due to family violence, assault, financial inequality and gendered role pressures. In Victoria alone, over 24,000 Victorians are homeless on any given night. Around 60 per cent of people experiencing homelessness are women.

Elizabeth Kelleher, programme coordinator with Homefront in Melbourne
Elizabeth Kelleher, programme coordinator with Homefront in Melbourne

Although Homefront cannot keep up with the level of referrals, we strive to provide a high-quality response to the women who do access a vacancy. Our team work within a feminist and trauma informed framework to support women negotiate the extra obstacles they encounter in their path to securing a home. Our focus is on empowerment and supporting extremely resilient women identify their own resilience and expertise to combat unfair and inequitable barriers to secure housing and more.

A recent review of Homefront found the organisation increasingly works with women from diverse backgrounds, 23 different countries of origin, to be precise. It also showed 72 per cent of women have successfully transitioned into housing after leaving Homefront.

Daria Blackwell, Ireland

Daria Blackwell
Daria Blackwell

While in the United States, I worked in the healthcare communications industry. I joined the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association early in my career, and eventually was elected president. When my husband, who is Irish, and I decided to move to Ireland, I founded the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Europe and established its board of directors. Once that was off the ground in Switzerland, I founded the HBA chapter in Ireland, which is now thriving in Dublin.

The Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association is a global nonprofit organisation comprised of individuals and organidations from across the healthcare industry. We are committed to achieving gender parity in leadership positions; facilitating career and business connections; and providing effective practices that enable organisations to realise the full potential of their female talent.

The HBA accomplishes its mission through strong business networks, education, research, advocacy, and recognition for individuals and companies. HBA provides women in pharmaceutical, biotech, and related healthcare professions the opportunity to network across many countries on the European continent. HBAnet.org

Sarah Murphy, Chiang Rai Province, Thailand

I have been at Centre for Girls for one month today. While the organisation is small (only three full-time staff members) their presence within in the local community is large and consistent. The centre works on the issues of human trafficking, gender based violence, and women rights. They have created a strong community of local businesses and government officials committed to fighting the array issues is this small border town.

I think the ethos of the centre - empower not save- is something many Western organisations could improve on. The women in this community are empowered, educated, supported, listened to, guided but at their own pace and with their own agenda. Through the Women for Change Network, a group of over 100 women from the seven sub districts in Chiang Khong, the first female village leader was elected in 2016. This was a monumental victory.

The centre also works with the local hill tribes on cultural topics such as child marriage and girls leaving education at a young age. Again, the aim is to educate them, not demand they change their practices. We also work closely with a HIV-aids prevention charity called KRK, which again provides education, support and a safe space for everyone to get free condoms, sanity products and support in times of need.

The centre is so much more than a Centre for Girls, it is an invaluable resource to the community of Chiang Khong and its seven sub districts. I am so fortunate to be here.

Laura Cahill, Boston

I’m an Immunologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. I am fascinated every day by medical science, and love what I do. Women are continually underrepresented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) sector. The American Association of University Women found that despite women’s advancements in male dominated fields such as business and law, a woman’s progress in STEM has been slower and impeded. It found that stereotypes lower a girl’s aspirations for science and engineering, and that most people associate science and engineering with male, and humanities and arts with female. This type of bias is damaging but common.

Another study investigating how parenthood affects career trajectory found that more than 40 per cent of women with full-time jobs in science leave the sector or go part time after having their first child in the US.

It’s important to work with women who continue to be role models for the younger STEM female scientists. I was trained and worked with Dr English, an inspiring female scientist who leads her own cellular immunology laboratory. Now, I work with other women in a culturally diverse and inspiring workplace which includes Dr Guo, a medical researcher from China, Miss Nguyen from New England who helps run our research core, and Dr Ng, a medical doctor from Canada.

STEM is paramount for everyone’s future and International Women’s Day is a chance to highlight a woman’s role in contributing to that future.

Anna McDonnell Dowling, Vancouver, Canada

Anna McDonnell Dowling
Anna McDonnell Dowling

Over long debates last year with my now-business partner, we came to the realisation that women are not taught the skills we need to live happy, empowered lives. Skip ahead 12 months or so and we have founded the f school, a global online school for women that’s inclusive and accessible, built by women (one Irish, one German), for women, teaching women the life skills that they don’t get at home, school, or work can transform lives.

We start with teaching women how to set and enforce boundaries, how to practice self love and self appreciation, overcome impostor syndrome, negotiate salaries, be allies to other women, how to care for friends who experience sexual assault, and much more. This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. To date, we have almost 900 women signed up from over 50 countries. And this is just the beginning. We believe in a world where every woman has the skills to live a more empowered life.

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