Catherine O'Neill, Advocate for Women and Children, Dies at 70

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Catherine O'Neill, whose travels with the International Rescue Committee to refugee camps led her, along with the actress Liv Ullmann and others, to found the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 70.

The cause was complications of cancer, her husband, the writer Richard Reeves, said.

Ms. O'Neill, who served on the board of the rescue committee, an aid organization that responds to humanitarian crises, had a professional career that included stops in the private, public and charitable sectors. In the 1970s she ran for the State Senate in California and for secretary of state, and she was the finance director for Gov. Jerry Brown's 1976 presidential campaign.

Ms. O'Neill was the first chairwoman of the commission for women and children, now known as the Women's Refugee Commission. It was founded in 1989 after she, Ms. Ullmann and others visited camps in Pakistan, Thailand and elsewhere and found, especially in places where war had driven people from their homes, that a special agency was needed, under the umbrella of the International Rescue Committee, to advocate for displaced women and families.

They saw, Mr. Reeves said, that in many camps "the system was run by men and geared to caring for the men."

"Young men of fighting age were fed first, then the boy children, because they'd be fighters in the future, then the old men and then the women," he said.

The Women's Refugee Commission now has a full-time staff of 25 with headquarters in New York. Its advocacy focuses on gender-based violence, migrant rights, sexual and reproductive health, the needs of adolescent girls and other issues.

Catherine Elizabeth Vesey was born in Queens on July 17, 1942. Her parents were immigrants from Ireland. Her father, Patrick Vesey, became a New York City subway conductor; her mother, the former Bridget Ruddy, was a cafeteria worker in city schools.

Catherine graduated from St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn and taught for a year as a Roman Catholic missionary in La Grange, Tex. She later earned a master's degree in social work from Howard University in Washington and a second master's, in international affairs, from Columbia. In 1999, Kofi Annan, then secretary general of the United Nations, appointed Ms. O'Neill director of the United Nations Information Center in Washington, a job she held until her retirement in 2007.

He first marriage, to Brian O'Neill, ended in divorce. In addition to her husband, whom she married in 1979, she is survived by two sons from her first marriage, Colin and Conor O'Neill; a daughter, Fiona O'Neill Reeves; a stepdaughter, Cynthia Reeves Fyfe; a stepson, Jeffrey Reeves; a sister, Mary Ann Garvey; a grandchild; and three step-grandchildren.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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