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Women's Empowerment

International Women’s Day 2023: The remarkable women of Trócaire who fight for a just world

On International Women's Day we celebrate 50 exceptional women who we have had the privilege to work with and learn from.

Written by Sorcha Fennell, Trócaire’s Director of International..

This year, as we mark our 50th anniversary, we in Trócaire acknowledge 50 remarkable women who over the past five decades we have had the privilege to work with and learn from.

But this list extends way beyond 50. Trócaire has worked with and supported millions of remarkable women in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America in their fight to secure a better life; to protect themselves and their children; to have their voices heard and to claim their fundamental rights.   

I have been inspired by, and in awe of, the ability of women in extremely difficult and often seemingly impossible situations to find the strength to keep going, to persevere, to find solutions and to overcome.   

I am thinking of the mother I met in Somalia who walked for days to get her child the life-saving support needed. The women of South Sudan who have endured decades of war while fighting to protect their children.  Women in Sierra Leone who fight for laws that will bring greater equality. And women everywhere who bravely break through cultural barriers to take up leadership roles in traditionally male spaces.  

All of these women deserve to be acknowledged.   

International Women’s Day 2023 from Trocaire on Vimeo.

The reality is that women and girls globally continue to experience widespread discrimination in every aspect of their lives.  At school. In society. In politics. At work. Sexual harassment and the threat of violence is a daily reality. This discrimination is wrong. It traps women and girls in poverty.  

This discrimination that faces women is compounded in countries impacted by the major crisis of today such as poverty, conflict and climate change. These factors disproportionately affect women and rob them of the opportunity to thrive, to secure their rights and to safeguard their families.   

Today there are over 37 million people across the Horn of Africa who are facing acute hunger due to five consecutive failed rainy seasons. Over 11 million livestock have died, crops have failed in the fields, water sources have dried up and people are on the move.   

It is women and the young who bear the brunt. Over 500,000 children face acute malnutrition and risk of water borne diseases, and women sacrifice their own food needs to provide whatever little there is for their children.   

While in Somalia a few months ago I met a woman who had walked for six days to bring her child to a Trócaire clinic – saving her child’s life. In Eastern DRC (Congo) – where there has been conflict for over 25 years and sexual violence and rape have been used systematically by armed groups – I met women who have courageously and successfully confronted militia and armies to demand that their daughters are protected from sexual violence.  

In Guatemala I met the brave women of Sepur Zarco who took their fight to the Supreme Court and won! Even when the situation seems overwhelming, with the right supports women can defy the odds, overcome obstacles and thrive.  

Trócaire believes that development cannot be achieved without challenging gender discrimination and injustice. We are committed to supporting women and girls’ protection, voice and leadership and we have seen the powerful impact that this work can have on improving the quality of women’s lives.  

In my 25 years of working with Trócaire I have leaned on, cried with, learned from and laughed together with so many remarkable women. On this International Women’s Day you too can become part of this fight by supporting Trócaire and the women we work with in villages and communities across the world to secure their rights and a better future.  

Spotlight: Some of the remarkable women of Trócaire who fight for a just world:


1. Sally O’Neill

Sally O’Neill. Photo: Mark Stedman

From Dungannon, Co Tyrone, Sally joined Trócaire in 1978 and dedicated her life to working with the poor, the marginalised and victims of human rights abuses. She retired from Trócaire in April 2015 after 37 years of service.

Sally worked primarily on Trócaire projects in Latin America but she was also involved in providing famine relief in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and established Trócaire’s programme in Somalia in the early 1990s in response to the famine. Prior to her retirement, Sally was Trócaire’s Head of Region for Latin America based in Honduras.

Throughout her career, Sally worked on the frontline during some of the most significant global humanitarian crises. She worked in Central America at a time when civil wars were being fought in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. She oversaw humanitarian aid to more than two million refugees in the Central American region during those conflicts.



2. Bertita Zúñiga Cáceres

Bertita Zuniga Cáceres (28) stands beside a mural of her mother, murdered human rights activist, Berta Cáceres. Photo: Garry Walsh / Trócaire

Berta Cáceres was an internationally renowned activist who was shot dead in 2016 after a long battle against corporate power. She led her community’s struggle to stop construction of an internationally financed hydroelectric dam in Honduras, on the Gualcarque river, which the indigenous Lenca people consider sacred. She was shot in her bed for leading this campaign in defence of the environment and human rights.

Her daughter Bertita Zúñiga Cáceres is now continuing the struggle of her mother. Like her mother, Bertita is the leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) – an organisation supported by Trócaire.

Since their founding in 1993, COPINH has stopped logging and deforestation projects, and plans for hydroelectric dams. Together with other indigenous organisations, COPINH successfully lobbied the Honduran government to ratify ILO Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous People, and also succeeded in gaining funding from the government for health centers and schools in Lenca communities. Bertita has also worked to obtain communal land titles for indigenous communities. 


3. The Maya Q’eqchi women of Sepur Zarco

The Maya Q’eqchi women of Sepur Zarco, who experienced sexual violence and slavery at the hands of the military for periods of six months to six years. Photo: Mark Stedman

During the 36-year-long Guatemalan civil war (1960 to 1996), indigenous women were systematically raped and enslaved by the military in a small community near the Sepur Zarco outpost. What happened to them then was not unique, but what happened next, changed history.  

From 2011 – 2016, 15 Maya Q’eqchi women of Sepur Zarco fought for justice at the highest court of Guatemala. The groundbreaking case resulted in the conviction of two former military officers of crimes against humanity and granted 18 reparation measures to the women survivors and their community.  

The Sepur Zarco case marked the first time in history that sexual crimes related to armed conflict have been tried in a national court. It sets a strong precedent for the other 1,500 Guatemalan women who are survivors of sexual violence committed during the armed conflict that they too might see justice done. 

Trócaire staff and partners accompanied the 15 women throughout the three weeks of the trial and will continue to support them to ensure that the sentence is carried out and that they receive their due reparations.


4. Josiane Umumarashavu 

Josiane Umumarashavu Photo: Trócaire

When she was just three years’ old, Josiane Umumarashavu lost her father, sister and two brothers in the Genocide against the Tutsi. Her memories of that devastating time include being forced to flee her home in search of a safe place, and crying for the doll she had left behind.  

This was 1994. Between April and July of that year, almost one million people were murdered in the Genocide against the Tutsi, in one of the most harrowing periods in world history.  

Ten years later, in 2004, Trócaire featured Rwanda in its annual Lent campaign.  Josiane’s mother was struggling to provide for her three young children in the aftermath of the Genocide – and Josiane ended up featuring on more than one million Trócaire boxes that reached homes across Ireland. 

Thanks to donations from the public during the 2004 Lenten Appeal, Josiane and her family, along with thousands of others, received support which helped improve their lives, and in particular supported farming. This meant they could feed their families, earn an income and continue to attend school.

Today, 18 years later, Josiane (31) is now married with two children and lives in Kigali City in Rwanda. After graduating with a qualification in business management and accounting, Josiane now works as a Finance Assistant in Trócaire’s office in Rwanda. 


5. Mona Shawa 

Mona Shawa Photo: PCHR

Mona Al Shawa is the Director of the Women’s Rights Unit of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). She has been working in the field of Human and Woman’s rights for 25 years. 

Mona has lived her whole life in Gaza, a 41km long and 10km wide enclave bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Egypt which is home to more than two million people. 

During her lifetime, Mona has lived through many crises from the Israeli occupation, the Gaza blockade and four military offensives in the last decade. She also led Trócaire partner PCHR’s women unit during the Covid-19 pandemic – which led to increased reports of violence against women during the lockdown period and providing hygiene kits. 

On a daily basis, Mona and PCHR support women with legal aid, safe spaces, and raising awareness. They keep working for justice, equality for women in Palestine, where the occupation, the patriarchal society, and the traditional practices all pause challenges for women in specific as well as for Palestinians in general. 

The work of the Centre is conducted through documentation and investigation of human rights violations, provision of legal aid and counseling for both individuals and groups, and preparation of research articles relevant to such issues as the human rights situation and the rule of law. 


In Photos: 50 Remarkable Women this International Women’s Day

View our slideshow of 50 remarkable women in honour of International Women’s Day.

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