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Equality

“Where do they spend their money?” asked the hosts of an American TV show that normally focuses on entertainment news but digressed into financial news in one segment.

It may have been about finance, but the story was really about social justice, because the report, released by Oxfam International, contained the rather shocking finding that the combined wealth of the 80 richest billionaires in the world is the same as that of the bottom 50 percent of the Earth’s population. In hard numbers, that translates to 3.5 billion.

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Of the 80 billionaires, 35 are American, while the others hail from Canada, Europe, Latin and South America, the Middle East and a few from Asia—most prominently Hong Kong.

Most of those included in the list are “self-made,” especially tech titans like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison. But some inherited their wealth, like the Walton siblings who inherited the Walmart empire built by their parents.

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But the point of releasing the information—gathered from estimates released by Credit Suisse and Forbes magazine—was to dramatize the scope and scandal of economic inequality in the world.

“Do we really want to live in a world where the one percent own more than the rest of us combined?” Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s executive director, said in a statement. “The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering, and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.”

The report, “Having It All and Wanting More,” was released as the World Economic Forum begins this week in Davos, Switzerland.

A report on the study said that “while world leaders such as President Barack Obama and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde have talked about tackling extreme economic inequality,” Byanyima observes that “we are still waiting for many of them to walk the walk.”

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Though no Filipinos made it to the “80 richest” list, the stark inequalities that the contrasting rankings show are nonetheless evident in this country—if not more so.

Pope Francis, in his homilies and statements during his visit here, often raised the need for social justice, speaking up for the poor and even counseling the faithful to “learn from the poor” because they have much to teach the rest of society.

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Following the papal visit on TV and hearing these words, I wondered how the Pope’s words were affecting the many affluent in the audience. For indeed, special places in the various venues were reserved for the influential and prominent, many of them “earning” their special treatment by way of contributions to the Church (many of which, we must concede, were for social amelioration).

But charity, or throwing money at the problem, said Pope Francis, was neither the sole nor proper response to poverty. We need to “cry” with the poor and the suffering, he pointed out in response to the tearful question posed to him by a former street child, and perhaps that “crying” requires sharing even just a bit of one’s hoard of riches to transform the structures that keep so many of Filipinos poor and miserable.

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Remarkable during the Pope’s few days in our midst is how he went out of his way to focus attention on and pay tribute to women, who, he observed at the UST rites, were rather unequally represented among the speakers and officiants at the altar area.

Indeed, two women leaders prominent in the ongoing peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were moved by Pope Francis’ call for greater participation of women, expressing the hope that perhaps by the visit of the next pontiff, he would be received by more women.

Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos Deles and government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer both said they “love the Pope,” with Deles saying it was “so heartening that, in his attention to the periphery, he did not miss the women.” She added: “It’s so important that he notes that men are a factor.”

For her part, Coronel-Ferrer expounded how important it is for women’s voices to be heard in the struggle for peace and justice: “Women and girls are affected by poverty, drugs, and prostitution, as well as by war, in distinct ways,” she said, adding that “Pope Francis thus poignantly noted the different perspectives that women and girls can offer.”

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The Pope’s remark on the lack of presence, or prominence, of women not just perhaps at the UST ceremonies but also in other events during his visit, was prompted by the heartbreaking question posed to him by 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar: Why does God allow children to suffer?

“The young girl’s question was heartbreaking,” said Coronel-Ferrer. “But the question is really addressed to us: Why do we let these things happen?”

“Women tend to ask many of the ‘why’ questions about life up-front,” she added. “Amazing how a young girl said it best. Even more amazing was how the Pope built on the moment to make a pitch for more women’s participation in both societal and spiritual affairs.”

So what will be the response not just of the Church hierarchy but also of government and its instrumentalities, to the lack of women in the country’s public life?

When will women, including the lay and religious women who serve in the background but are really the backbone of parish affairs, receive not just recognition, respect and compensation, but also leadership positions where they can contribute their “genius” and ask their incisive questions?

And when will we see the number of women serving in our legislature, in executive offices, in the rank-and-file especially in nontraditional roles, reach meaningful parity?

Women—and the Pope—are watching.

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TAGS: Barack Obama, Christine Lagarde, economic inequality, Glyzelle Palomar, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, Oxfam International, Papal visit, peace process, Pope Francis, social justice, Teresita Quintos Deles, Winnie Byanyima, World Economic Forum
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