To be honest, I’m not really sure where to start. My mind is still reeling from the hours upon hours of panel discussions, forum meetings, cohort processing time, and the newness of being surrounded by the high profile dialogue that occurs on an international scale at the United Nations. I knew it was going to be an intense week before I arrived, but I’m not sure I really understood HOW intense. Try to picture this:
Thousands of women (and some male allies) gathered in NYC for a 2 week conference on the Status of Women. Each woman is carrying her own story of the injustices she or someone she knows has faced as a result of being born a woman. Each woman is carrying hopes and dreams for the world she wants to see and is holding an agenda for how she will share that information with the policy makers and high profile delegates of the UN. Every day, and ALL day, she sits as a witness to panel discussion after panel discussion focusing on any number of topics (maternal health, violence against women, women and education, women’s spirituality, women in government, women as peacemakers, etc) which all have one thing in common…..how will we move forward and create gender equality and continued development within our world. The presentations are beautiful, intense, frustrating, inspiring, and dismal all at the same time. But still, each woman (and male ally) sits and listens intently trying to absorb as much of the information as possible. If there was one thing that all these women from different parts of the world, and our male allies present (including two from our own ELCA cohort), had in common, it was this….we all want to be torch bearers to create change for our world. We all are seekers of justice and hungry to make this world a better place….for ALL God’s creation. We may have different ways of going about that or different ideas of what ‘human rights’ looks like, but I can promise you this, we were all here to learn how we can make a difference in our world….both locally and globally.
I want to share with you 3 take home points that really stick out to me from my time at this conference in an effort to try to put this experience into some kind of verbal form:
1). It’s not just about equality, it’s about equity. The presenters at the conference made it very clear that it’s not just about ensuring equal access to resources and service for men/boys and women/girls, it’s about ensuring that men and women are on equal footing so that the resources that are being offered truly can be accessed equally. Here’s an example: after the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, many laws were created in member countries ensuring that girls were allowed to attend school. Great. But, what most of these countries didn’t take into consideration were the many structural barriers that were still preventing the girls from accessing this newly established resource (education). Many rural schools did not have bathrooms which meant that girls were missing 1-2 weeks of class every month while they were having their periods because of lack of adequate availability for sanitation. Also, many of these schools were located at the end of dangerous roads and paths, so even though the girls technically had the ‘freedom’ to attend school now, they still weren’t able to access this resource because it was too dangerous for them to get there. So, in order to truly ensure equal access to education (this is just one example), structural barriers within the system need to be addressed in order to ensure that boy/men and girls/women are on equal footing. I found this very interesting and something that I had never considered before. We must be aware of the difference between ‘equality’ and equity and must advocate for our fellow sisters to be provided with opportunities to stand on equal footing as men.
2). Violence against women is a HEALTH epidemic. Being a nurse, I feel silly that I never realized this before. I went to a presentation by the World Health Organization, and they described violence against women as being among the world’s top epidemics right now. Violence as a health epidemic? Of course. Violence afflicts not only physical harm (42% of the time) to a woman (requiring medical treatment many times), but violence also afflicts severe emotional harm to a woman leading to a significant rise in mental health ailments like depression and substance abuse. Violence against pregnant women affects maternal health significantly and leads to greater instances of HIV/AIDS, infant mortality, pre-term deliveries and low birth weight babies. Violence against women is a HEALTH epidemic, and it affects greater than 20% of the world’s population. We must raise our voices and protect ourselves and one another from sexual and physical violence by raising awareness and standing in solidarity with one another.
3). What’s God got to do with this? EVERYTHING. It is amazing how many times we went to panel discussions and the topic of religious based communities was raised…..unfortunately, most of the time it was in a very negative light:
-Faith based communities just get in the way. They should just step back and let other NGOs
-Religious based communities are too focused on their own agenda
-Sexual/Reproductive Health Rights became a religious debate and not a human rights issue
It actually broke our hearts to realize how detrimental so-called ‘faith-based communities’ can be in the fight for human rights. We are so broken and have created broken religious based institutions. But, for me to think that the best thing for faith communities to do is to just ‘step back’ and stay quiet instead of advocating for human rights issues is impossible. To me, if God HERSELF isn’t found within the debate of human rights, then we will never know true freedom from oppression or true equality with one another. We were ALL created in God’s image….NO EXCEPTIONS. Somehow we have lost sight of this along the way…in the midst of our brokenness. BUT, it was really refreshing to hear an Islamic Imam (Shamsi Ali) speak truth to the audience when he said ‘religions without human rights are DEAD’ and a quote from Kofi Annan that says that ‘religious leaders are the conscience of the government’. Religions should never back away from the conversation regarding human rights, for we have a responsibility to seek justice and truth through the lens of the Divine. Instead of backing away, according to Imam Shamsi, religions SHOULD: 1). Give freedom to her people, 2). Promote human dignity, and 3). Promote human equality. So what does God have to do with any of this? EVERYTHING. God is love. God is peace. God seeks justice. God is an advocate. And we were ALL created in the image of God.
There is so much more to share and process regarding the information presented at the conference…and that will continue to develop and unfold as we move forward from here. But, if I can leave you with one more piece for sharing, it’s this….change starts with US. Don’t think globally right now. First think, how can you change your own attitudes toward justice and equality that includes ALL of God’s creation and how can you live this out in every interaction and every decision you make? According to Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, ‘I’m a believer in local community. I’m a believer of practical solutions. It doesn’t take a lot to do what we’re being asked to do.’ But it does take courage. And it does take hope. Have faith and take heart….we’re here to do God’s work, and SHE will never abandon us.