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We have read with unease the article “Migrants show the West the real face of motherhood, Vatican official says,” written by Elise Harris and published in Crux on November 11, 2018.

As reported in the article, Gabriella Gambino, the undersecretary heading the section of “Life” in the Dicastery of Laity, Family and Life presents a dichotomy between migrant African women as a “prototype of motherhood lived in essence” and “Western” women who allegedly see “motherhood as a fatigue, motherhood as a choice, as a productive decision.”

As networks of women spanning many countries and a variety of backgrounds, we experience ourselves as persons with unique paths through life who cannot be reduced to our continents of origin. Our lives are daily encounters with grace, struggle, joy and pain. We are persons, not copies of some ideal philosophical prototype. We have to ask if a one-sided presentation of African versus Western women honours the varied life experiences of real women or if this is a preconceived notion artificially forced into ideological containers.

We, too, know many heartbreaking stories of women who have conceived children through acts of violence. We, too, know women who have emerged from these experiences believing that their child is a gift of God whose life transcends the horrifying circumstances in which he or she was conceived. And we know other women who, often in utter desperation, end their pregnancies, either through medical procedures legally available or with dangerous “home-made” methods that have at times permanently damaged their health. These women and their stories exist in all cultures on all continents and throughout history. We believe that to silence their voices and deny their experiences in order to shore up a highly romanticised ideal of maternal life is a betrayal of women’s realities and only inflicts greater suffering on those who, through no fault of their own, have been unable to match up to this ideal.

Beyond the false dichotomy between Western and African women, we find it unhelpful and dangerous to idealise the suffering of migrant women. Yes, violence can bring out heroic strengths in women, but violence also maims, breaks, paralyses and destroys. We would do well to focus our attention on the causes of violence, injustice and suffering and on concrete accompaniment of those who are affected by it, rather than putting an aura of desirability around the brave but traumatising struggles of women. As Christians we know that redemption can be found in suffering, but we should not romanticise such suffering and dress it up as something desirable and worth imitating.

We write as women who have firsthand experience of living and working among African women and refugees. We do not deny that some conform to the description in that Crux article, but it is dishonest and exploitative of their suffering to use them to deny the complex and often tragic experiences of women as mothers, and to use them to devalue and criticise Western women. We dare to suggest that Professor Gambino herself is an example of what is possible for women because of the threatened and precious freedoms that women in the West have struggled for, and which refugee women also aspire to – the freedom to be more than mothers and to resist being defined only in terms of our maternal capacities.

We appeal to Professor Gambino to remember that in her position she has a responsibility towards all laity, women and men, in the Church. We invite her to an open, honest and inclusive dialogue on what womanhood, motherhood and femininity mean to women of faith. We invite her to wrestle together with us with the question of how violence impacts in many ways upon women in today´s world – including in the Catholic Church. If she has been misquoted or misrepresented in the Crux article, we hope she will issue a correction.

If today´s Catholic Church is to be a credible faith leader and a field hospital for the faithful in our troubled world, it is a responsibility of all of us – whether ordained leaders or lay officials – to “smell of the sheep.” This can only happen when we are willing to engage with the messiness of real life, not the illusion of “prototypes.”  


  • Chantal Götz, Managing Director, Voices of Faith
  • Petra Dankova, MSW, Advocacy Director Voices of Faith
  • Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, Coordinator of Catholic Women Speak
  • Nontando Hadebe, Chair of Southern African Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians
  • Sheila Pires, Radio Veritas Producer and Presenter of “Catholic View Women Feature Programme” (South Africa)
  • Paola Lazzarini Orrù, Donne per la Chiesa

Wednesday, 14th November, 2018

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