Connecting the dots is how Deirdre Mullan describes her work at the United Nations, where she directs Mercy Global Concern, a project of the Mercy International Association. A Sister of Mercy who arrived in New York half a dozen years ago, she recently visited America House with another Mercy sister, Eileen Hogan, to speak about their work in connecting the 12,000 sisters worldwide who, in the tradition of their foundress, Catherine McAuley, advocate on behalf of the poorest. Along with members of other congregations at the United Nations with status as nongovernmental organizations, their goal is to raise consciousness at the local and international level about the needs of marginalized people. Together, Sister Mullan said, “we want to challenge governments to follow through on promises made to their most vulnerable citizens.”
Such challenges can take place through U.N. ambassadors stationed in New York City. Sister Mullan gave an example from Kenya. A Mercy sister there had contacted her by e-mail to share fears for the safety of girl children in Kenya. Many work as maids in private homes, often in conditions that can be exploitative. That message led Sister Mullan to alert the Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations, who promised, she said, to investigate.
Eradication of poverty and how poverty affects women and girls are among the major focus points of Mercy Global Concern. Before her arrival in New York, Sister Mullan earned her Ph.D. from the University of Ulster, with a dissertation on the feminization of poverty. “Much of the work I do at the United Nations deals with how poverty affects women and girls, so choosing that topic turned out to be providential,” she said.
Education is often especially neglected for girls in developing countries, partly because of the traditional household tasks they are required to perform. “Even if they are in school,” Sr. Mullan said, “girls are expected to fetch the family’s water, and if the family can afford to send only one child to school, it will ordinarily be the boy first.” The Mercy sister who accompanied her to America House, Eileen Hogan, who is on the board of Mercy Global Concern, gave an example from Cameroon, which she visited as part of her work as co-founder of Sister to Sister—an N.G.O. that focuses on supporting the efforts of African women in addressing the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic. “When a husband dies, often of AIDS,” she said, “his family may come to claim all the household goods and even chase the wife away.”
Although Mercy Global Concern seeks funds for its work, it also connects people with financial resources with those who lack them. Collaborating with Unicef—the U.N. development organization for children—the Sisters of Mercy funded a program to train police officers from U.N. nations to recognize children at ports of entry who might be trafficked. Similarly, a grant from the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland came in the wake of the tsunami. “The Irish sisters wanted to make a donation, but they wanted it to go to the women victims of the tsunami, because they felt they were the ones who had suffered most.” The outcome of their contribution led to the construction of two fish factories that employ women, through Unifem.
E-mail has been increasing in importance for connecting dots between sisters in the developing world who can bring local needs to the attention of N.G.O.’s like Mercy Global Concern. Sister Mullan spoke of a request from a Mercy sister in Cambodia seeking assistance in constructing a village school. Sister Mullan sent out an e-mail message to Mercy connections in her native Ireland. Within hours, funding was forthcoming, leading to the construction of a serviceable three-classroom structure. Connecting by means of e-mail has its limitations, however. Sister Hogan, in her work with Sister to Sister, spoke of difficulties in connecting the dots in countries where sisters might not have access to e-mail or even to electricity.
At the time of her visit, Sr. Mullan was preparing to travel to Australia to join the Mercy Sisters there in the congregation’s celebration of its 150 years “down under.” She had already been in touch with sisters there who work with the native people. One told her of a saying in the aboriginal tradition: “If you are coming to help me, I don’t need your help. But if you’re coming to share your pain and my pain, we’ll help each other.” Sharing, whether of pain or resources, is part of Mercy Global Concern’s efforts to assist in the fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals’ primary objective: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. And connecting the dots is one of the ways in which the Sisters of Mercy’s efforts are involved in the move toward that goal. “We have to find new ways of connecting with people,” she said, “because we believe that it’s not enough to be compassionate—we must act.”