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Gender and Social Inclusion

A Tribute to Catherine O'Neill from the 2013 Voices of Courage awards luncheon

A Tribute to Catherine O'Neill, Delivered by Jurate Kazickas

There was, quite simply, no one like Catherine.No one with her combination of intelligence, savviness, connections, compassion, brashness and passion.

More than 20 years ago, visiting refugee camps as an IRC board member, she saw with her own eyes the plight of young girls and women, how their specific needs were slighted or ignored, despite the fact that they were 80 percent of the displaced population.

Returning from Pakistan in 1988, furious that Afghan girls were left home to cook and clean while boys went to school, or worse, were being married off to much older men, she was spurred into action. And she knew, as we all know now, that when you want to get something done, call the women.

Catherine, Liv Ullmann, Susan Martin and Susan Alberti brought together a group of women with access to the corridors of power, women with deep pockets, media experts, women with bold-faced names, professionals in the field…and the rest of us.

I remember watching Catherine with those fiery Irish eyes speak with such deep-hearted concern for the women in the camps. Thus was the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children born… to carry the voices of women refugees to organizations, donors and governments who could improve their lives.

One of the many facets of Catherine’s genius was her recognition that you can’t effect change if you don’t have the attention of the press. Her modus operandi was simple and I saw it in action when we visited Bosnia a year after the signing of the Dayton peace accords. We brought Muslim and Serbian women together to share their stories of loss and their desperate yearning for peace. Catherine wrote a report on the plane, then insisted that Swissair let us use the business class lounge during a layover in Geneva even though of course we were flying economy. “We just came from Bosnia on a humanitarian mission,” she shouted. 

Back in New York, barely 24 hours later, she called Charlie Rose and said, “Charlie, you need to put us on your show tomorrow. Because we have up-to-the-minute news of what is happening in Bosnia.”

Charlie did not dare say no to Catherine. No one dared to refuse Catherine. (Although, I seem to remember the Swissair agent wouldn’t let us in…) The power of her bold personality was legendary. Liv Ullmann remembers when she and Catherine were thrown out of Hong Kong because of Catherine’s relentless questioning of the government about the mistreatment of Vietnamese women refugees.

She once marched up to the head of the Joint chief of staffs at an IRC dinner demanding to know why the US would not sign the international ban on landmines

Catherine taught all of us to be brave, never to be intimidated by naysayers, to fight for the righteousness of our cause.

Under Catherine’s leadership, the Women’s Commission funded the first program developed and run by Afghan refugee women, it launched a seminal work on reproductive health care in refugee settings, and through her impassioned testifying and lobbying before Congress helped bring about passage of the Refugee Women and Child Protection Act.

Catherine left us much too soon, but what a gift she gave the world. Millions of women have benefited from her vision and legacy and millions more will be helped through the continuing work of the Women’s Refugee Commission.

Thank you, Catherine.


This tribute to Catherine O'Neill, founding chair of the Women's Refugee Commission, was presented by Jurate Kazickas, former vice chair of the board, at the 2013 Voices of Courage Awards Luncheon.

Gender and Social Inclusion