I must begin by confessing that I have never been much of a crusader for women’s rights. Equal treatment of women and men was something I too often took for granted, especially as I grew up in an environment where both girls and boys were encouraged to become the best students in the pursuit of big dreams. I was also the one in a college Spanish composition class to write about improved social and economic recognition for stay-at-home dads when asked to examine a “women’s issue.” Indirectly, I suppose, this issue does have a measurable impact on women with children and ambitious career aspirations but I don’t think that it was exactly what the assignment was getting at. For this and many other reasons, attending the United Nation’s 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was eye-opening, overwhelming, inspiring, exhausting, informative, and probably one hundred other descriptors. Now separated from the experience by a few weeks I am beginning to see small ways in which my worldview has been changed and I have been challenged to think bigger. I hope that in sharing these lessons, one or two of the ideas might stretch the way you see the world as well.
1) “Women’s Issues”: I guess I sort-of always saw these as a narrow set of principles about which a handful of women complained rather loudly. This was a poor assumption for many reasons, not least because every group has a few loud voices that often come from the farthest extremes. My oversimplification of the realities and questions of issues affecting women failed to recognize a vast number of characteristics of the daily struggles facing women all over the world. Because the theme of this year’s CSW was “Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls,” there was a lot of discussion of “gender mainstreaming.” This is a fancy way of saying yes, in the next group of development goals there should be a goal specific to women such as reducing maternal mortality. However we also need to think much more broadly about the particular impact of every goal on women and girls.
Take current goal number six, for example, “Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.” From a health lens one might ask what is causing the disease and how can we slow or stop the spread? From an economic perspective one might ask what are the costs of this disease, who is getting richer, and who is getting poorer because of it? For a social understanding one might ask why some groups are disproportionately affected by this disease and for a political analysis one might examine why other groups are gaining or losing power as a result. The gender perspective, which is still too often ignored, enriches the discussion by raising the question: how are women and men, girls and boys, affected differently and why? This type of question is what is meant by “gender mainstreaming” and brings to light important issues, such as the fact that women are disproportionately affected by global poverty and carry the majority of the burden for sustaining those living in poverty.
2) Specific Topics: As I was challenged to think bigger about sweeping global phenomena like the Millennium Development Goals, my understanding of the nuances of particular issues was greatly deepened in panel presentations known as “side events” that were offered on a wide range of specific topics. For example, I attended a side event entitled “Addressing Widowhood as a Root Cause of Poverty Across the Generations.” Beforehand I knew that in many countries there are legal and cultural barriers for women to own property, sign for loans, and run a business when they lose their husbands. However, the picture in my mind of a widow was an elderly grandma who would be devastated by the loss of her home but would have the option of living with one of her children. The widows that this limited understanding completely overlooks are those girls who are married early in their teenage years and before they turn 20 they have several children. Suddenly a war or epidemic breaks out and they find themselves without a husband. Not only do they lose a member of their family but also their homes if women are not allowed to own property and a steady income if there is gender discrimination in local hiring practices. Again a number of other MDGs are involved such as securing access to education for young mothers of several children or eradicating extreme hunger when the primary breadwinner is gone. In order to reach families facing very specific challenges such as young widowhood we must again move beyond narrow understandings and seemingly simple solutions such as my own incomplete perceptions of the face of global widowhood.
3) God: In addition to consideration of the wider themes in pre-reading and orientation as well as specific topics covered in side events, a third dimension of my CSW experience was daily conversation with the Lutheran young adult cohort. This was a group of about a dozen ELCA young people from across the U.S. who came together at this event to learn and to bring the lesson back to the various places we encounter the church in the world. Each afternoon we gathered for some lively and moving discussions about the intersections of faith, God, and gender justice. As humans with finite abilities to perceive and comprehend, God is always something or someone that we can reach for broader ways of understanding. From a week of discussion and reflection with the young adult cohort I have concluded that there is something deeply important and yet something inherently futile about debating gender inclusive names for God. God is just so much bigger than our limited ability to perceive and describe God and God’s creation all around us; our labels always are and will be insufficient. Describing God as both Father and Mother helps our finite brains imagine such an infinite idea, but in debating inclusive language we must not lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day all of our words fall short. It was evident that the Holy Spirit was moving among us at CSW in the women who witnessed to ongoing injustice and have devoted their lives to bringing about justice; in the energy, pain, and frustration that surfaced in various discussions; and in fleeting moments of silence to attempt to breathe it all in. It was disheartening to hear from multiple presenters that faith-based groups often present obstacles to promising initiatives, a reflection of our imperfect abilities to understand God, our neighbor, and the world around us. The fact that progress, albeit slow, continues despite our many failures is all the more reason to believe that God’s hands continue to work in our midst.
So you have come to learn and discuss, which is nice, but what are you going to do about it? This was the call to action, in so many words, of Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for her leadership of Liberian women in their relentless movement to end their country’s decade-long civil war. How can we say we are doing good work in Manhattan, she asked, when maternal mortality is still far too high in Brooklyn? How can we turn these days of listening and learning into actions in our own backyards?
We can start by remembering to ask how are women and girls disproportionately affected by the decisions we make individually and collectively each day. We can take small steps in the places we each have influence as in the Austrian Foreign Ministry cracking down on visas issued to domestic workers who are exploited in the homes of some foreign diplomats. And we can take a few extra minutes to listen for the challenges we might help our neighbors overcome, neighbors both male and female who are made in the image of an indescribable God.