Speaking out is a way of serving the Church


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After 32 years of working in various positions throughout the Caritas network, Martina Liebsch is a top expert not only on migration and other global issues but also on how Caritas has developed as a professional, global ministry of the Catholic Church – and how women increasingly gain a voice within the institution. “We have to work on this outside and inside the Church,” says Liebsch.

Pioneering Career in Service to Caritas

Many times in her career, Martina Liebsch was called a “first” or an “only.”  She helped to develop the first Caritas Germany comprehensive policy document on migration in the 1990s and to change the approach of how services were provided to migrants – from a country-specific counselling provided by Caritas to an integrated model in which Caritas lent its expertise to public service providers to give migrants access to mainstream services.

“I stick to facts, and facts tell me that there is still no equality and we need to work towards that. We need women’s voices to be heard, speaking out is a way of serving the Church.”

Liebsch also was at the forefront of developing projects addressing human trafficking in Europe and co-founding COATNET, a network to coordinate efforts of Christian entities in this field. She humbly notes that COATNET “followed her” in her career and today Caritas Internationalis hosts it in its Vatican offices.

From 2000 to 2008, Liebsch was the President of the European Migration Commission of Caritas Europa before she moved to the international headquarters of Caritas at the Vatican to serve as the Policy and Advocacy Director for Caritas globally. She remembers that for 7 years, she was the only women in the management team of Caritas Internationalis.

Liebsch shared with Voices of Faith that her beginnings as a front-line social worker continues to help her in her work today as policy and advocacy expert. “I don’t have to imagine people “ Liebsch explains, knowing concrete stories helps her to focus on “real change for the people” amid seemingly abstract work on declarations and policy meetings. “It is good to look into the faces of women who have lived through difficult, complicated conditions and still they smile, that is an inspiration and a driving force for me,” she reflects and adds “I have been inspired by women in South America and other continents longing for a better world. I think this can sometimes be labeled as strange or idealistic in Europe but these women in South America live it naturally, authentically. It is good to be able to say in front of different audiences: I long for a better world.”

“I have been inspired by women in South America and other continents longing for a better world. I think this can sometimes be labeled as strange or idealistic in Europe but these women in South America live it naturally, authentically. It is good to be able to say in front of different audiences: I long for a better world.”

New perspectives on the female face of migration

Liebsch remembers that 20 years ago, the issues related to women were not so developed within the field of migration. She was pivotal in Caritas’ efforts to bring attention to women migrants in the Female Face of Migration conference and policy paper, in advocacy work to safeguard the rights of domestic workers that resulted in the International Labor Organization’s Resolution 189 or in the first-ever global campaign of Caritas Internationalis, One Human Family, Food for All.

The changes in relation to women seem sometimes counter-intuitive. Liebsch recounts that at the beginning of her human trafficking engagement, the attention was almost entirely on trafficking for sexual exploitation between Eastern and Western Europe. Today, there is a recognition that trafficking not only affects women and girls but also men and boys and that aside from the cruel world of sex trafficking, other areas needing serious attention are trafficking for labour exploitation, in crisis situations, or trafficking in the maritime industry. Liebsch believes that this broadening of attention lifts some of the stigma that victims of trafficking faced when it was automatically connected with sexual exploitation. This redefinition supports the dignity of the women and girls affected by trafficking.

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“I have had the privilege to meet so many great women, women on the ground, women I have met once and remember their smiles, women with whom I have shared part of the journey. I remember encounters with women who are authentic and trying to make a change in the world,” reminisces Liebsch in closing, “I wish I could gather all the inspirational women I have met in my life in one place and we could celebrate the changes that we have accomplished.”

Similarly, Liebsch points out that a new horizon among the issues connected to migration is the right not to migrate, in other words the right of people to be able to stay in their homes and have a dignified and fulfilling life without having to migrate for reasons of violence, economic or environmental pressures. “Migration should be an informed choice,” points out Liebsch, but instead, it is often driven by lack of opportunities and myths about better lives abroad.

Staying at home should not be forced by restrictions on movement, Liebsch hastens to add, but supported by efforts that “make people actors of their own development.” Liebsch believes that women can and must play an important role in this kind of development. “Women have more of a survival instinct, a more practical approach” to solving issues in their communities and are often open to bringing new ideas. In this context, Liebsch highlights the Women, Sowers of Development award that Caritas initiated together with the Fidel Götz Foundation to showcase women’s work at the grassroots level.

Liebsch also believes that women who tasted the dark side of migration can be powerful ambassadors to their own communities and beyond, warning of the dangers and helping to find alternatives to perilous journeys abroad. Recounting stories of courageous trafficking survivors who turned their suffering into service for others, she reflects “we, sitting at a desk or having the privilege to meet these women have to amplify their voices. They need to be heard at the political level and by their peers.”

The needed voices – women in leadership of the Caritas Confederation

And how are things for women working at Caritas? “We have to see the facts,” points out Liebsch realistically, “I work in a male-dominated environment, at least at the leadership level.” According to Liebsch, there are plenty of women in Caritas, but they work mostly on field level or in mid-management positions. “Of the 165 national organizations of the Caritas Confederation, there are 28 female executive directors,” lets Liebsch the numbers illuminate her statements.
Liebsch believes that there is a value in having more women in leadership positions not simply as a matter of numbers but because mixed teams of men and women work better, offering a variety of life experiences and angles on all issues – not just those related to women. “We need women’s voices to be heard, believes Liebsch “speaking out is a way of serving the Church.” “We have to work on this outside and inside the Church,” continues Liebsch. “I stick to facts, and facts tell me that there is still no equality and we need to work towards that.”

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In Caritas Germany, a project is underway to empower women to take up leadership roles. When asked about this, Liebsch agrees that such initiatives can be helpful. “I look at the women I meet and they are great people but sometimes they underestimate their value and importance” notes Liebsch and adds that she enjoys working with junior female colleagues and see their potential unfold.

According to Liebsch, at the last general assembly of the Caritas Confederation, a group of women met the General Secretary and discussed how women could be supported. Liebsch believes that since this issue was included in the strategic and operational plans of Caritas, the organization is bound to act on these impulses and achieve some palpable results before the next general assembly in 2019. She is hopeful that change is happening, pointing out that for the last two leadership positions that were open at Caritas Internationalis, female candidates were hired.