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Value women’s caring hours in employment contracts: Sr Alessandra Smerilli

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Salesian Sister Alessandra Smerilli, secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, speaks during a conference on St. John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”) at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University May 11, 2023. (CNS photo/Justin  McLellan)

Restructuring the working week to include hours spent on caring for family members or in community volunteering is one way societies could better recognise the dignity of women, a Vatican representative told a Sydney gathering for International Women’s Day.

Salesian Sr Alessandra Smerilli, Secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said societies will truly flourish when caring roles, maternity and the equal dignity of women cease to be undervalued.

Smerilli shared her thoughts on the need for continued advancement in education, economic policies and legal protections for women via a pre-recorded message at an evening hosted by Australian Catholic University and Mary MacKillop Place on 8 March.

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The senior Vatican leader commended a concept promoted by Canadian legal philosopher and author Jennifer Nedelsky whereby employment contracts would accommodate 30 traditional working hours and no less than 22 caring hours per average week.

“Care is usually considered as a distraction from more important jobs, outsourced, usually to women or people who do it on behalf of others and live off this, often miserably,” Smerilli said.

“The very fact that remunerations to those who carry out these jobs for a living are lower than the average suggests that care does not have a high social consideration.

“We need to bring back care to the public scene.”

Past and current students of the Women’s Leadership for Mission program at the International Women’s Day event held at ACU North Sydney campus on 8 March. Photo: Supplied by ACU

The 30-22 hour split would be averaged across a year and written into contracts in the same way as annual leave rights, she suggested.

“Only if we can socially and legally value care, will we be able to ensure that it becomes an essential dimension of every job.

“Only by valuing care on a social and civic level will we ensure that it is not understood as a ‘women’s’ issue.”

The event was attended by education and religious leaders, students, and representatives of the Sisters of St Joseph and their ministries and opened with a welcome from congregational leader Sr Monica Cavanagh RSJ.

The event coincided with the launch of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Australian Young Catholic Women’s Fellowship, through which eight women are being sponsored to undertake the Women’s Leadership for Mission graduate certificate program offered by ACU.

Mary MacKillop Place general manager Carmel Yahl is also in this year’s student group.

She felt inspired by the evening as a leader herself who seeks the best for around 60 employees in her care, who in turn provide many kinds of care to the community.

“Part of the gift of the feminine genius is about genuinely putting people first and seeing the human side of things,” Yahl said.

“I was really excited to hear Sr Alessandra speak about how important care is— it is a value very much entrenched in my Lebanese heritage—and it confirmed for me why I am doing this course.

“I hope to be an influence, not necessarily in terms of gaining more power or authority, but I would like to help effect change for people who need support.”

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