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International Women’s Day (8 March)



Homage to Doctor Zilda Arns Neumann

11/03/2010: Brazil

A few days ago we celebrated International Women’s Day (8 March). This is an opportunity to mention a person who gave honour to the feminine world through her leadership abilities, through the methodology of participation she implanted in her projects, through her gift of self, through the idealism and Christian love she radiated everywhere. This woman is Doctor Zilda Arns, who died at the height of her powers in the earthquake which ravaged the city of Port-au-Prince (Haiti), on 12 January 2010.

It is edifying to know that this heroine, mother of five children, had two brothers Franciscan priests and three sisters in the congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Schools. One of her brothers is Dom Evaristo Arns, Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus of São Paulo. Another was the late Dr. Osavaldo Arns, who held the office of Rector of the PUC of Curitiba and was Professor of Greek and Latin. The faith and the educational ideal brought the Marist Brothers and this family close together.

At the request of the Bishops’ Conference of Brasil, this doctor of Pediatry created, organized, promoted and co-ordinated – in addition to the Ministry for the Elderly – the Ministry for Children in Brasil and, progressively, in many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. It all began in 1983. The seed sown became the Organization of Social Activity of the National Bishops’ Conference of Brasil, under the name of « Foundation for the Ministry for Children ». In 26 years of operation in Brasil, it affected 42,000 communities, 7,000 parishes in all the Brasilian dioceses. The Foundation accompanied 1.9 million pregnant women and children younger than 6 years old, and 1.4 million poor families.

Doctor Zilda declared, in Port-au-Prince a little before her death, during a talk that she was giving to the Conference of Religious, she wanted to motivate the leaders and volunteers of the Ministry for Children in the country: « Through the power of fraternal solidarity, a network of 260,000 volunteers has been created, of whom 141,000 are leaders living in poor communities, 92% are women permanently involved in building a better, more just and more fraternal world, in the service of life and hope. Each volunteer devotes an average of 24 hours a month to this mission of transformation, which consists of educating mothers and poor families, sharing the bread of brotherhood, and spreading knowledge for social transformation. »

This ministry succeeded in controlling malnutrition and reducing infant mortality. At the beginning of the project, the number of under-nourished was more than 50%; it has now come down to 3.1%. Infant mortality, in 1983, stood at 82.8 for every thousand births; today it is 13 per thousand in the communities where the Ministry for Children works. The good results have won support from the Health Ministry, Unicef, the HSBC Bank and many enterprises for the preparation of well trained people for basic health, food, and educational activities. The monthly cost per child is less than US$ 1.

In her last talk in Port-au-Prince on 12 January, Zilda said:
« I am convinced that the solution of the majority of social problems is connected with the urgent reduction of social inequalities, the elimination of corruption, the promotion of social justice, access to quality health care and education, mutual economic and technical aid between nations, in order to preserve and improve the environment. In order not to go under, there has to be solidarity among nations. Solidarity and fraternity are what the world needs most to survive and find the way to peace.
Like birds which take care of their young by nesting in trees and mountains, far from predators, threats and dangers – and closer to God – we should take care of our children as a sacred trust, promote respect for their rights, and protect them. »

Frei Betto, OP, writer and journalist, remembered Doctor Zilda in this way:
« Yes, she performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, that is to say, of life. Wherever the Ministry for Children arrived, the index of infant mortality fell, in the first year, at least by 20%. Zilda Arns leaves us as her heritage the example and conviction that one can change the profile of a society by ordinary actions, volunteers from civil society, even if public authority and private interest remain indifferent or make a show of social responsibility.
If thousands of young people and adults are surviving today, in the conditions of poverty in which they were born, they owe it especially to Doctor Zilda Arns, who merits, without exaggeration, the perpetual title of Mother of the Nation. »

NB.- The government will issue on 23 March, in Curitiba, a stamp in her honour bearing the inscription: « Para que todas crianças tenham vida » (So that all children may have life).

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