Catarina Furtado: How many lives can fit into a woman?


How many lives can fit into a woman? TV hostess, actress, dancer. Mother. Goodwill Ambassador. In her 50 years, she has already led many existences. In all of them, she surprises with her easy smile, the kindness of her gaze and her sense of commitment to noble causes and social activism. Here is Catarina Furtado. 

Photo: Frederico Martins
Words: Paulo Gonçalves

Catarina is a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). How did this close relationship with the United Nations (UN) begin?

I was reached 23 years ago by someone working with the APF (the Portuguese association for family planning) to find out whether I would be interested in interviewing with a UN special envoy, who was doing a sort of casting for the Portuguese-speaking post of UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador. I know that more people were interviewed at that time, but the truth is a month later I received a letter from the UN’s General Secretary, Kofi Annan, with a formal invitation.

I immediately felt that it was a great responsibility, as I would have the opportunity to exercise a voluntary role, which would help me to better understand the world and its inequalities, pushing me to study ‘dossiers’ I was not used to. I realized, then, that the choice fell on me because of the genuine concern I shared throughout my career, in interviews and even in the TV programmes I hosted, about issues such as gender equality, maternal health, bodily autonomy, the rights of girls, young women and women, non-violence, non-discrimination, and the potential of young people.

This UN body has a tough and challenging agenda because it advocates for causes that are considered “sexy” (despite some terminology), it is more difficult to find funding for projects that reduce maternal mortality than for projects directly related to children. When in place, family planning services not only promote women’s health and their rights, but also have a very positive impact on countries’ economies. I witnessed on the ground that when there is an investment in this issue, maternal death decreases between 25 to 40%. It’s proven. 

Over the years, I have tried to use my creativity whilst learning about the reports, statistics, and the body of work of UNFPA concerning more than 150 countries. To be up to put the glaring issues, which need the attention of civil society, political decisions and the public, technical and academic opinion, in the media spotlight. I understood clearly that investing in women’s sexual and reproductive health and supporting them in their informed decisions is also investing and supporting a family, a community, and a country.

Later, the then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed me as a Millennium Development Goal Champion (ODM), the goals that all UN member states set as achievable for the world to be a fairer place, and which have since been replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), whose deadline for achieving them is the year 2030.

My mission has been successively renewed by the Executive Directors of UNFPA. I am the only Portuguese Goodwill Ambassador and the one who has been in office the longest.

What are your main responsibilities as Goodwill Ambassador for the UNFPA?

We are expected to put certain issues on the public and political agendas, from equal opportunities and gender equality to social inclusion, reproductive right, youth participation, and non-violence based on gender (and all the harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, child and forced marriages, combined or early, teenage pregnancy).

We are committed to working directly with the media, providing interviews about the issues, but also writing articles. Going into schools to speak to pupils and teachers. Organizing fundraising campaigns for the projects on the ground and having meetings with political decision-makers, in Portugal and developing countries, from ministers and secretaries of state to parliamentarians deputies.

It includes, as well, attendance at conferences in the Assembly of the Republic and co-presenting the UNFPA Report on the State of World Population. Then, there are also work visits/missions (e.g., Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Egypt, and Cape Verde) and conferences at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Prague and at the European Commission, among others.

As there is no funding to allow me to go into the field regularly, to get to know, first, the real needs of the populations up close and show the public the importance of UNFPA’s humanitarian work, I decided 16 years ago to create a television format in the form of documentaries which I called (together with my director and co-author, Ricardo Freitas) Príncipes do Nada (Princes of Nothing). I also did a series on maternal mortality in Guinea-Bissau named Dar Vida sem morrer (Giving birth without dying). I find it crucial to show with good examples and emotions the results of the commitment to inspire action and the will to promote human rights, to finance them coherently and sustainably. The episodes can be reviewed on RTP Play.

I have also had the opportunity to witness and film the hard work of civil society organizations and the UN system in many countries such as South Sudan, Indonesia, Colombia, Haiti, Bangladesh, East Timor, India, Uganda, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Sao Tomé and Príncipe, Guinea-Bissau, and in several refugee camps located in Greece and Lebanon.

Being born healthy and with fully acquired rights cannot just be a privilege for some women and children, but a fully realized right for all people all over the world.

Despite often feeling a sense of powerlessness, I wish I could remain at the service of these causes in the developing world. This conviction comes from having witnessed, in many situations, the difference between the life and death of mothers, women, and babies through UNFPA projects that invest in women’s health and tackle aggressions against women’s human rights.

I will never forget the striking expressions and figures of forced/early marriages, female genital mutilation, obstetric fistula, and the lack of access to sexual and reproductive health care, family planning and education.

The power of a camera, a microphone, or a photograph is enormous.

You took on this role more than 20 years ago. How has this mission changed your life?

The book I wrote in 2015, O Que Vejo e Não esqueço (What I see and don’t forget), and also the one I wrote later about adolescence, Adolescer é fácil#soquenao, sum up this response well.

In these pages, I state clearly that women, girls, and children are the biggest victims of all inequalities and violence in the world. When I go into the field to produce my documentaries «Príncipes do Nada» (Princes of Nothing), I end up being on two fronts. While taking on my role as a Goodwill Ambassador, in addition to reporting for the series, I also meet with ministers and local UNFPA representatives. After having a clear notion of the existing difficulties, after listening to the people who truly count, the ordinary people, I speak about it with the press.

My perspective on life, or at least my main focus, has totally changed.

Today, I know the meaning of Urgency! It is urgent not to forget the people who suffer most (girls, women, migrants, and refugees) not only in contexts of poverty, war, conflicts, but also in developed countries where there is peace, but which are ruled by dictators, who often use religion as a justification to violate women’s rights, like Iran and Afghanistan.

Since we have access to information, providing we know how to separate it from lies, we also have the duty of doing more and better. Whatever is within our reach to improve the lives of those who are systematically silenced, violated, and neglected. We must demand solutions.

I decided I have to tell real stories, with rigour, but also with hope. Positive stories about smart investments and examples to follow, and never just exposing their suffering.

It is in this work that I can find emotional balance, but it is still very distressing to know that those people will continue living in tents with rats, spending days in queues waiting for a plate of food, their children prevented from continuing their studies, while I return to my comfort. This is why I will not remain silent.

And I try to pinpoint some paths when I am asked for advice (and many do!): donate money to those who intervene in the field; go to the field to do specific volunteering; practice online activism (petitions); stay informed; talk to our political representatives and non-governmental associations; be aware of the dangerous power of fake news; do political surveillance.

How important is it for a small and peripheral country, like ours, to have the Portuguese António Guterres as Secretary-General of the UN?

Before any other reason, there is the emotional one. It is a source of pride to have a Portuguese person in such an important position. I know, we know, that the UN has structural problems, it is a heavy organization, and it is not perfect, but, if it did not exist, the world would surely be in a much worse state. This is the way we have to think, never ceasing to demand more of its role.

António Guterres is a true humanist, who brings together knowledge and empathy. His greatest advantage and energy for the job is in his diplomacy. There are always many opinions about his performance because we are a kind of sitting-in general-secretaries. However, it is a great source of satisfaction because he takes the name of Portugal across the world, when usually football and fado are responsible for doing so. To have a Portuguese in the noblest of roles, that is, contributing to try straightening up the world.

In 2022, the Corações com Coroa Association (CCC), which you founded in 2012 when the country was going through a financial crisis, celebrated its 10th anniversary. What is your assessment of the work carried out?

I am very proud of the work carried out by my team of 8 people, alongside some collaborators and volunteers. It is a social enterprise whose profit is an investment that is reflected in the autonomy of hundreds (more than 500) of girls and women we support and to whom we have already restored lives.

Although there is a lot yet to do, in 11 years, we have already accomplished so much. But we do it with total commitment, despite being a small structure.

I feel privileged, and I show how thankful I am every day with volunteer work. I ensure that my children and stepchildren understand the world we live in and want to be part of the solution.

With the association, Corações Com Coroa, I also feel that we make a difference because we provide many women with free daily care in the areas of psychology, social service, legal support, dental support, employability, financial literacy; we award scholarships, with bio-psycho-social support destined to young girls who could not pursue university studies for financial reasons and lack of structural support (we have already given 34 scholarships to date), and we also have a project on menstrual poverty. We change lives. It is very empowering!

It is a great joy to know that Jéssica Silva, for example, who represents the Portuguese national football team, started with our ‘push’, and, today, scores incredible goals every day in her life.

Or Élia, a young Romani girl, studying Law, a role model for so many other gipsy girls who find in her the strength to boycott marriages and early pregnancies, which enables them to continue studying.

CCC also takes to the schools a project against dating violence and bullying, a reality little discussed in our society and which will inevitably lead to an increase in the figures and shame associated with domestic violence. We have already presented it to 8 000 students across the country.

Moreover, we still have our social business, the CCC Café, whose earnings revert entirely to the Association’s projects, while providing employment. A magical space, a terrace, where people consume with social responsibility, hold free-entry social gatherings, and where each client feels a part of a cause.

We practice horizontal solidarity, putting ourselves in the shoes of people who need our support. We are against vertical solidarity, which implies superiority, a top-down approach to giving.

Last year, we celebrated our 10th anniversary at the Trindade Theatre, where members, partners, friends, and the public could see the results of the projects wrapped up in a show that moved people.

Because change starts within the heart and is transformed, taking shape with reason.

In the future, we will need to secure more financial support to be able to help more people, and, for that, I will count on the contribution of the corporate social responsibility area of companies.

One day, I would like to create a kind of citizens’ office, but only for human rights issues. Who knows… I am stubborn.

I invite you to visit the CCC website:

In CCC’s mission statement  “Empowering girls and women” is a major goal. Why is our society still moving so slowly in this area?

Rooted fear. Our society is built over very strong roots of predominant male chauvinism.

Women themselves still do not know their power and full role, so they are said to be mean to each other. I don’t agree. I am a feminist. I love being a woman, but I don’t represent all women. I stand for freedom. In my view, all people should be feminists because what is being defended is equality of opportunities, equal access to decision-making positions, of choices. Until that equality is achieved, we should all fight for it. Because society is the greatest beneficiary. It is not a matter of opinion, but of being informed and tackling ignorance. Feminism is not a fight against male chauvinism, it does not intend to annul the men’s role, it wants instead to balance inequalities.

Why is investing in girls and women the right choice, the one with more sense?

Because investing is preventing costs, it is not spending money. It is being intelligent and doing serious work to evaluate the projects that have had a clear impact on the achievement of equal opportunities.

Women with higher levels of education have fewer children and fewer unplanned pregnancies, are more likely to marry later and contribute to the economic growth of their countries.

Globally, over 130 million girls are out of school. 63% of illiterate adults are women.

Education transforms lives. Investing in girls’ education transforms communities, countries, and the entire world, strengthens economies and contributes to more stable, resilient societies that give individuals, including boys and men, the opportunity to reach their potential.

There are many barriers to the education of girls, which vary according to the countries and communities they live in.

Child labour, the role of family caregivers, schools without proper sanitary conditions to maintain hygiene, including during menstruation, conflicts and humanitarian emergencies, and social norms rooted in deep-seated gender inequality. But child, early and arranged marriages are as well a form of violence, with a tremendous impact on girls’ lives.

Every year, 15 million girls under the age of 18 get married or enter into a marital union, interrupting and putting a stop to a course of schooling that would enable them to gain skills, and break the cycle of poverty, social exclusion and violence. These marriages lead to early and frequent pregnancies, which also contribute to high dropout rates.

Every year, 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are mothers, and the stigma, lack of support to care for their babies associated with discriminatory laws exclude them from school.

Every day, 20 000 teenage girls under the age of 18 die in childbirth. 

And every day, 830 women die from preventable causes associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

Every 11 seconds, a pregnant woman or a baby loses their lives.

Over 218 million women are unable to access modern contraception.

One in three women suffers violence in their lifetime.

Today, 200 million girls and women live with the consequences of female genital mutilation.

A 2016 World Bank study has already proven the transformative power of the investment in girls’ education up to the age of 12, accounting for the loss that countries experience in terms of productivity and income due to the lack of that same investment.

We need more national and international cooperation.

What I have experienced is real life.

I do not forget the looks, the words, the examples, the courage, the sacrifices, and the pain of people who have entrusted me with their stories. People, especially women, whom society labels as victims, vulnerable, poor, and unaware of their rights.

And yet, these hundreds of girls and women were responsible for giving me the proper definition of what it is to LOVE someone!  They are the ones who inspire me, and encourage me to go further in the search for ways to give them access to the same opportunities.

In people who fight daily for their survival, I find genuine generosity and a mutual help spirit.

It is not fair for children to be the mothers of children because the laws (including the traditional ones) do not prevent this.

Political will, hostage to strategic architectures, is not enough, and prevention programmes in health and women’s empowerment are not attractive to donors… who figures why.

I have met an and know by heart some names of many girls under 15 married to men of 60 or more.

Traditions are not and cannot be a justification for the violation of rights. Cultures can be preserved as long as rights are not violated.

At this moment of upheaval and great challenges we live in, we must fight populist and nationalist movements that – also in Portugal – manipulate the essence of human rights, including the right to development.  

We have to stand for our global daily lives: it is vital not to forget, sideline or attempt to make invisible many people due to their sexual orientation or identity, their gender, their ethnic-religious origin, the place where they were born, or the role they occupy in the family. 

I speak of racism and xenophobia, but also of homophobia and transphobia, and of the marginalization of refugees and migrants.

Over 70 million people around the world had to flee their countries or relocate internally due to wars, conflicts or persecution. 

Never as today has humanity had so many refugees: 26 million, 13 million of whom are children.

The figure is ever-growing.

People who, from one day to the next, had to escape death, risking their lives. I have entered refugee camps in Greece on the islands of Samos and Lesbos, and I have seen in Europe humanist values being totally ignored.

I also went to Colombia to learn about the harrowing stories of Venezuelan migrants, caused by the social and economic crisis in their country, as well as the millions of Colombian internally displaced, people who carry signs of unspeakable violence from these conflicts. And, once again, women are the easier prey.

Today, all over the world, some children are mothers, there are children with dead mothers and there are mothers who count their children who are gone.

These people must be heard so that we can jointly act against the figures that are sent to us daily by the press, social networks, reports, or speeches.

The solution is already identified, and it is called PREVENTION.

Despite the progress already achieved and the success stories, it is pressing to pool efforts, resources, and willpower to reach the three zeros that make the difference in this collective journey towards 2030:

Zero maternal deaths; zero unmet family planning needs and zero forms of gender-based violence with special attention to female genital mutilation, child marriages (e.g., in Brazil and Mozambique), the non-schooling of girls and women that is transversal to most countries, including the Portuguese-speaking ones, and which are joined today by new scenarios such as Iran and Afghanistan, and also domestic violence and sexual violence.

What I want for the girls who live next to me, here in Lisbon, is the same as what I want for the girls who are in rural areas or cities in any other country in the world.

Those who are privileged for having their rights recognized have to revolt against the violation of those very same rights for thousands of people in our world.

TV hostess, actress, communicator, ambassador, author, mother, woman… you undertake several roles. Activist is another?

We have two choices in life: to take part in the shaping of a more egalitarian world, or not. Preferring instead to whistle on the side, pretending that it is none of our business. But it is!

We live a shared humanity and, therefore, even if unconsciously, nobody can feel truly fulfilled when the benefits only fill their bellybutton.

When this happens, feelings of competition, unbridled ambition, and permanent dissatisfaction take hold of the person, pushing them further and further away from the possibility of achieving inner peace.

At this point in my life, regardless of the worries and the day-to-day problems, I have achieved a state of personal satisfaction which allows me to be not only more positive and optimistic about life, but also more entrepreneurial – because I see the impact of my work and my team on improving the quality of life of other people.

To me, that is the real Power and definition of Success.

I started volunteering when I was 9 years old at the Crinabel special needs school, where my mother taught. It was a good seed and I think a little activist was born there, which has become muscular over the years.

In my opinion, we must be participative citizens and demand transparent public policies, with concrete commitments, but we must also involve civil society, companies, and each one of us, so that the real fight against gender and social and economic inequalities is efficient and effective.

It is my life’s mission (after my role as a mother). This is the footprint I want to leave on the world, and I use my profession as a communicator to do so.

I believe in the power of inspiration and in educating for empathy so that we can build a world where people are more considerate of their surroundings and have their rights recognized. With a special attention to the most vulnerable.

One of CCC’s projects is called Tamo Junto com a Guiné Bissau, and is implemented at the Simão Mendes Central Hospital in Bissau. We have built a new maternity wing, with 9 wards, for the areas of obstetrics and gynaecology, which were needs I identified during the various trips I have made to the country. 

My team and I (Ana Magalhães and Cláudia Cerveira on the board) are aware that many of CCC’s projects came to fruition thanks to those who believe they too can change the world. People and companies who, like us, believe that we should use every day the greatest power of all, that of changing lives. That is what being powerful is all about. And it is really possible to transform realities without the eternal excuses of cultural issues.

It is possible to make an activist be born in each one of us.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, we came to think that there would be a certain collective conscience that would impose itself for the good of humanity. Then came the war in Ukraine. Is it still hard for us to learn as a society?

Before answering, I would just like to underline that COVID-19 made gender inequalities even more pronounced and contributed to an increased risk of school drop-outs, sexual exploitation, and all other forms of violence.

For example, the lack of resources for sexual and reproductive health, maternal and child health, and family planning programmes has put many more women and families at risk because the funds that were intended for them were transferred to the fight against COVID-19. Pandemics compound the difficulties for girls, women, disabled people, refugees, migrants, and the financially vulnerable.

Women make up 70% of the health and social services workforce worldwide, and have therefore been more exposed to the virus and discrimination, with their psychosocial rights being neglected.

The issue of domestic partner violence is also very important because, on the one hand, the strain caused by the effects of the pandemic has increased cases of violence, and, on the other hand, the pandemic weakened victim support services. In addition, as schools closed, the family workload was taken on by women who sustained their families ‘on their backs’, and since they had to stay at home, they also lost their financial autonomy.

Reconciling the family, personal and professional life has never been so challenging as during the confinement in our homes. These are steps backwards in the achievements made for gender equality. Moreover, concerning unprotected and informal work, where the caregivers are mainly women, there has also been more suffering.

The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine will have to pave the way for new public policies because today’s public policies are leaving people with their hands out. But, on top of that, we must make a self-evaluation of our behaviour and our inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

There is an EGOLOGICAL crisis – Egocentrism blinds us and does not allow us to be thoughtful to the sighs of others because it is as if we are always wearing headphones listening to our playlist.

The theme of this magazine is “A Better World”. How can we contribute to making the world… better?

Learning how to listen. Wanting to listen. Accepting differences before criticizing. Making the exercise of putting ourselves in the shoes of others. With great strength.

Not presuming that the needs of others are the same as ours. To be persistent, to understand that humanity is a constant sharing and, above all, that what we do here will have an impact there, and vice versa.

International cooperation is not only the work of diplomats, foreign affairs ministries, foreign relations or major world conferences. International cooperation is made and practised daily through the empowerment and promotion of equality of all people, leaving no one behind.

Creating peace within ourselves will enable us to promote peace among others. Practising responsible and horizontal solidarity is good for our inner world, and has concrete results in the outer world, improving it.

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