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With the German bishops

· The work of the Hildegardis-Verein Association of Bonn for the promotion of women in the Church and in society ·

Women were a rarity at German universities when on 17 May 1907 Maria Schmitz, a teacher and centrist politician of Cologne, together with other Catholics with similar ideas, gave life to an association for the promotion of Catholic girl students – later named simply Hildegardis-Verein. Only seven years had passed since, for the first time throughout the Empire, women’s access to higher education had been officially granted in the Grand Duchy of Baden. In Prussia they had to wait until 1908. So Schmitz and her colleagues must indeed have had to go a long way to reach their goal in the avant-gardist epoch, to “show the values of our faith in people of great distinction and put them at the service of our people’s development”, in other words to make possible an equal participation by women in academic, professional and social life….

More than a century later, the successors of the founding mothers still have much to do. In spite of all the achievements in the sphere of policies of equality, women are still today under-represented at the high levels of universities and businesses, of the Church and of politics, as well as in many other social milieux, both in Germany and internationally.

“Thus today our work starts from here”, Gisela Muschiol, President of the Hildegardis-Verein explained. She also teaches at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Bonn. “The ideal of Christian formation takes the whole person into account; for this reason we support women of all ages, both financially, through interest-free loans, and with suggestions specifically geared to the person, such as mentoring, exercises and introduction to the Internet”.

Last meeting of the first group of the “Lebensweg inklusive” project

School, study, profession, pension: today such a complete and linear biography of training and work is not easily seen either in Germany or elsewhere”, It is not seen for men and even less for women.

Yet most of the public aid for training is oriented to this type of life model. This is true of the Bafög (a federal law on the promotion of education which provides for loans on easy terms), while for scholarships clear age limits are established: the age of 30 for aid to those who wish to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and 35 for those who need to complete a master’s.

The biographies of the Christian women students who present themselves to the Hildegardis-Verein often reveal different backgrounds: there is the 40-year old mother who, having devoted herself to her family for a certain period, wants to obtain a further specialization in order to prepare herself for a return to professional life, but without taking the money she requires for further studies from her family budget; there is the 33-year-old who had interrupted her studies and after caring for her parents over a long period desires to take up higher education in order to earn a diploma; there is the 50-year-old widow who, following the death of her husband, is obliged to go back to work but to do so needs further specialization and training. The Hildegardis-Verein is also open to these formative paths, for only in this way does training continue for the whole of life and is more than a mere password,

Supported by its members the Hildegardis-Verein is today (as in the past) a small and flexible organization and in this lies its strength. “In the direct and constant exchange with our members we have always succeeded”, Muschiol explained, “in reacting to the continuous changes in political, educational and social conditions and in directing our work to them, without by so doing relinquishing our Catholic identity. There have been times when, given the serious lack of housing, we have built hostels for women students. At the moment there are other topics on the agenda”.

In all of this, however, an intensive work on the Internet is also very important. “We collaborate with many organizations active in the spheres of higher education, of the Church, of women’s movements, of inclusion and of politics”, Muschiol explained further, “and it is there that we continue to seek ever new collaborators to be able to offer further loans for education”. For example, in cooperation with the community of the Catholic institutes for higher education of Rüsselheim, the Hildegardis-Verein offers loans to foreign women students who have children. Together with the Albertus-Magnus-Verein association of Cologne, the Hildegardis-Verein has set up easy-term loans for women students of the Archdiocese of Cologne. And, with the generous support of the Hofmann-Stiftung, the association has granted interest-free loans to unmarried mothers living in particularly precarious situations throughout Germany.

The Hildegardis-Verein considers itself a door-opener for Catholic women on their way towards training and specialization. And it also wishes to be a door-opener for trained women who want to work hard in the Church, in society and in politics. Therefore, together with these easy-term interest-free loans, in recent years the association has given special importance to the development of proposals for women’s formation and to increasing the opportunities for women’s participation. According to those in charge of the Hildegardis-Verein, coexistence and collaboration between women and men, on an equal footing and as partners, constitutes an important premise in order to respond to the dramatic challenges of our time in society and in the Church and to be committed in the common responsibility for a just, sustainable and peaceful world.

In this it is up to the Church to provide a specific role model, The Hildegardis-Verein is therefore implementing its new project in collaboration with the Bishops’ Conference and with the German dioceseses. With the motto “The Church in mentoring: women emerge”, the purpose is to increase the number of women in executive positions in the Catholic Church (www.kirche-im-mentoring.de). This unique and innovative programme for Germany makes available to German Catholic dioceses 40 places in tandem overall, divided over two cycles of mentoring that last for one year. In each tandem an expert director (mentor) of the archdioceses works together with a new recruit (mentee), enabling her to become acquainted with an executive post in the Church. Both men and women serve as mentors. Participating in the first mentoring group are the Archdioceses of Aachen, Bamberg, Essen, Hamburg, Hildesheim, Cologne, Limburg, München [Munich] und Freising, Münster and Trier.

“The programme as a whole aims to encourage and to train women to take on an executive office in an ecclesial institution”, Muschiol explained. “Empirical studies show that executive structures in which both men and women are represented work in a more targeted, creative and transparent way. What is more, when an executive post must be filled in structures or offices in the diocese it will be an advantage to be able to draw on a larger group of qualified candidates”.

Maria Schmitz

With this programme which lasts for two and a half years, during the period 2015-2018 the association also intends more generally to publicize the workplace which is the Church, and to make visible female examples in executive positions in the Church.

The Hildegardis-Verein now has a long experience in the field of mentoring, a means of support already consolidated in businesses and in institutions for higher education. Thanks to the financial backing of the Conterganstiftung, from 2008 to 2013 it implemented, at a federal level, the first mentoring project for women students with disabilities and chronic illnesses. The programme, praised on several occasions, has offered to 50 mentees in all the possibility to be guided and advised for one year by a man or woman mentor (also partially affected by a disability). “The open and tailor-made exchange with expert mentors in the profession and in life has afforded to the women students who have participated an opportunity not only to develop their academic and professional skills” Muschiol explained further. “As a living example, the man or woman mentor also and above all passes on values, thereby strengthening the young women’s personalities”.

This is also demonstrated by another project the “Process of inclusive life: a tandem of skills for female students, with and without disabilities” (www.lebensweg-inklusive.de), sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and organized by the Hildegardis-Verein from 2013 to 2016. In two annual cycles, 41 women students, with and without disabilities, from technical institutes for higher education and universities, have been able to evaluate their own academic and professional careers together with girls with similar ideas and to broaden their personal outlook.

The mentors’ commitment as volunteers has also enabled many of the women students taking part to realize how important it is to assume a social responsibility too, alongside their work activity, through volunteer work”, Muschiol declared. And to motivate them to do this is “another goal of our work at the Hildegardis-Verein”.

What will be the next item on the agenda? “We shall once again update our policies of promotion to the present situations and requirements, and hence in the coming years work with refugees could of course be included among them. In fact”, explained the President of the Hildegardis-Verein, “given the increasing number of students with a right to asylum, the landscape of German institutions for higher education is facing great challenges”.

The association is therefore currently working on a project to help women refugees with an academic base, that is, with academic ambitions, to settle successfully in Germany and to be integrated into in our society with their abilities, strengths and interests. In the future too, therefore, the old motto of the Hildegardis Association will also apply “Culture grows wings”.

Ursula Sautter

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