Columnists

Anne Hailes: Maureen Maguire and Soroptimists opening doors to the best for women and girls around the world

Maureen Maguire presents the Soroptimist International public speaking award to Brianna Armstrong, pupil at Rathmore Grammar School in Finaghy. Maureen is the first international president of the organisation, which works to support women and girls around the world, to come from Northern Ireland.

I ASK Maureen Maguire where she got her deep caring for other people needing support and understanding, but sadly the answer is not what I expected.

Fifty years ago, in December 1971, she told me there was a knock at the door at the family farm in Curlough in Co Tyrone and three men forced their way into the house.

As two held Maureen, her sister, mother and father hostage in the living room, the third went upstairs and shot dead her only brother. Denis Wilson was 31 years old and a member of the UDR; he was in bed as he was feeling unwell.

It changed the lives of the Wilson family. Maureen's father died three years later of a broken heart, her mother lived on with hers and Maureen's future became one of service.

Her professional experience was gained working within NI Health and Social Services before setting up her own consultancy. She has a Master's degree in public procurement, is a member of the Chartered Institute of Supply Management and Health Services Management, in addition to being on the board of the Training for Women Network and the NI region of the United Nations Association.

As member of Soroptimist International of Portadown since 1989, she became President of Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland in 2011 and today Maureen is the first Irish woman to hold the prestigious position of Soroptimist International President, a role she will hold until the end of 2023.

Originally a club for business and professional women, it was established in California in 1921 to concentrate on welfare work and developed into an international organisation called Soroptimist, loosely translated as 'the best for women', and this is their ethos.

Gone is the club atmosphere, the white gloves and handbags, the fancy dinners, the elitism. There are still fundraising events but the atmosphere is more relaxed, and all the women and girls are working together to support their sisters throughout the world.

It's organised in federations - Africa, the Americas, South West Pacific, Europe, GB and Ireland - and it is a tremendous honour that a woman from Northern Ireland is the international president.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR MAUREEN?

Most recently her meetings have been virtual - not quite the same as being in Fiji or South Korea as was planned before lockdown but tomorrow she is off to Ohio to speak at a conference about the importance of recognising initiatives throughout the world rather than concentrating specifically on the needs within one area.

It's a powerful organisation with 19 representatives at the United Nations consulting on global development, on improving health and education, reducing inequality, climate change and addressing economic growth amongst many other issues. Their work is also basic, as she pointed out.

"For instance there is 'period poverty' in India, where women and girls are often expect to refrain from normal activities such as bathing or cooking or may even be banished from the home during their period, the negative attitudes towards menstruation affects a girl's self-esteem," she says.

"My own club in Portadown discovered that girls in Northern Ireland were not going to school because of period poverty. We raised much needed funds, purchased pads, tampons, pants and wipes and made up packs for schools in our area."

Until she took over as international president, Maureen was the Soroptimist representative on the government's engagement group which acted as an independent voice to the Department of Justice on human trafficking.

"I was interested in finding out the awareness of the general public to this crime and suggested that we carry out a public questionnaire," she said.

"The result was that all clubs in NI carried out a survey and we returned 1,000 completed questionnaires. This assisted the department in their public awareness campaign.

"The effect of this was that it was then taken forward and carried out across the other countries in the UK and has since gone wider - Nigeria, Australia and the Caribbean to name a few."

Maureen has chosen 'Opening Doors to a Bright Future' as her presidential headline having heard Malala Yousafzai's father say of his campaigning daughter, 'I opened the door and watched her fly'.

"I want to open doors to a bright future to benefit the worlds most marginalised girls and women because women need to have skills to earn money for themselves and their families," says Maureen.

To this end she is highlighting five projects during her time as president. An education programme in Cambodia to develop self esteem and business acumen: "A lot of girls aged 10-15 drop out of school to work in the fields or in a cement factory; often there's no transport to school, so we will give these girls intensive education for their future which might even mean going on to university."

In Pakistan it will be training women to become teachers and computer skills training, in Uganda education will include using information technology in rural areas, with projects in Europe and America yet to be announced.

SUPPORT IN ACTION

In Kathmandu Maureen watched girls who were living on the streets come together to use the pens, pencils and jotters she had brought for them from Portadown.

"One girl tore out three pages and gave them to her friend who had already lent her some paper, and she wanted to return the kindness. I admit I was so moved I burst into tears."

I ask about Ukraine.

"At the moment clubs around the borders are working with refugees coming into their countries, providing essentials and comforts for the families - many with only women and children, having left their men behind to fight, or where possible keep their business going," she explains.

"Another vitally important service is providing translators as people cross the border into a new country, a new way of life and for many a new language."

As Maureen pointed out to me, one drop of water in a pond can create multiple ripples each making a positive difference and so can each of us.

That certainly applies to Maureen Maguire.

soroptimistinternational.org/openingdoors

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Columnists