Faith, Public Responsibility and Women’s Rights

For nearly three decades, I have been domiciled in Europe and America while my heart is glued in to my beloved Africa. I have had the previlege of extensive travel in every region of the world and experienced the joy of  hospitality of people so different in every way from me. During this nomadic life,  I have also experienced  contradictions such as racism, sexism, discrimination and more. Deep down in me, I am whole. My faith and people of goodwill kept me focused on helping to create a legacy for my young grandson who currently frames the future for me. .  Nelson Mandela said that people are not born hating each other but they learn to do so. I am in the business of preventing people from learning to hate and instead helping them to love and unlearn hate. I believe every human being is created in the image God and God for me is goodness.

At one time in my tenure while based in Geneva, Switzerland and working with the Lutheran World Federation and the Ecumenical Movements,  we enabled churches to talk together about an inclusive church for men and women, the clergy and laity. Several churches  began to ordain women and many went all the way to install women as Bishops and it was good to see  all people of God participating in ordained ministries of some churches. Change  took a long time but once started, it hastened and scaled rapidly. Churches in Africa were part of this movement of creating an inclusive church and I was filled with joy and hope that this would be an example of other good things that can happen in academic instituitions, governments, industry and so on. Places that were once only for one gender can change. I am happy to see male  nurses these days and to see proud African fathers carrying their babies in public. And  women are also becoming  Bank Managers, Heads of State and proffesional Chefs in top restaurants, not only cooking in the family. These small chnages add up.

Beyond ordained ministries, I saw churches  help each other through the ecumenical movements to to deal with their own role with wars, genocides, apartheid, race, caste, ethnicity, political oppression and repression, dictatorships, displaced and misplaced people, AIDS, Sexualities and the list continues.  Issues that raise public concerns require collective responsibility  and the most important lesson for me was discovering for myself how faith informs struggles for justice and how struggles for justice inform faith.  Sometimes I learned these lessons from people and other times from scrptures.  For example  the Bible reading of  Luke 4: 16-19,  depicts Jesus as a creative and controversial person  who acted on his convictions, regardless of the consequences to him. His concern  was to speak for the poor, for the victims of cruelty and systematic injustices;  for  women and children; for  prisoners of crime, for those without previlages or opportunities, for the sick – bleeding, blind, deaf, disbaled and those locked out of any meaningful participation in society due to  barriers of culture religion and ignorance. Jesus taught his disciples  that God’s purpose is to set the oppressed free to realize their potential, to be fully human and fully alive, to experience abundance in life. The concern of Jesus was particularly for people in whom all hope had been crushed – who felt consigned to long days and even longer nights of quiet desperation and despair! They had nothing to hope and live for.

Stories motivate me. Whether they are ancient stories I read about or stories of people living today. I  find things to do  and messages, sometimes good and other times not so good. I often say, my journey to activism and feminism  is rooted in faith teachings. Through quaker teachings in the family, I learned about stories of  passionate people who had compassion for others and took upon themselves the philosophy of building peaceful communities of “Friends”.  Their interpretation of Christianity was grounded in stories that said “words alone don’t calm or heal peoples suffering”. A hungry child needs food and a homeless person needs a roof over their head.  Actions are needed to actualize the struggle in solidarity with those at the margins. Succees is on the way when we commit and work for their  release from all personal, social and political forces that  will debilitate them if left and abandoned on their own. I also learned that the goal for justice  is not just about rights – it is about compassion and love. Speaking and acting on issues  of justice is foremost a responsibility of love. Love is founded on respect and full acceptance of the other. It does not work when we “other” others by tribe, race, abilities etc.

My current  work focuses on women and girls  many of whom have no say in major decisions at home and in their community, and who, in their hundreds of millions live with violence  and violations of their very basic human dignity. This is the opposite of compassion and love.

Violence against women and girls in the world today is so pervasive that it is a shame to society . I especillay condemn those who violate women in the name of their faith. Religious extremism and negative beliefs about women bring shame to the faith that means so much to me. I have made it my business not to deny my faith commitment but to absolutely  refuse to align with or excuse anything that harms people in the name of faith.

The many dimensions of violence that  we see today  include; physical, sexual and psychological/emotional violence in the family and community, as well as such violence perpetrated or condoned by governments and religious people in many countries. Specific forms include domestic violence; discrmination, exploitation, restrictions of women’s freedoms and partcipation, harmful, traditional practices such as  early and forced marriage, honor crimes, female genital mutilation and dowry murders; sexual harassment; trafficking, forced prostitution, rape as a weapon of war; targeted violence against women human rights defenders and many more.

Over the past three decades, I have experienced a new journey, one that is both marvelous and terrible. It is marvelous because of the companionships and the partnerships along the way with women  and men from every part of the world, religious and secular, of all races  and achievements.  It is terrible because  everyday I see and hear the pain and oppression of women  and girls and it tears my heart and forces me to speak out with force and sometimes, anger takes over from the love I would like to exude.

The one central lesson I have learned in life  is that transformative change is possible and those who believe  that “another world is possible”. ( a phrase that  galvanized the World Social Forum in 2004 in Porto Alegre Brazil) will not be silenced  Whether they are seeking peace in their war torn countries, or affirmation of their own human dignity,  people at the margins are bold and put their lives  at risk all the time in hope for results that will not only benefit them but benefit those after them.

Another faith based story that motivates me to believe that another world is possible for women is found in the Bible, Luke 18:1-8. The main character is a woman who every day, insists on demanding her rights from a judge who is denying her those rights. The judge gets fed and grants her wish. The church uses this story to tell people to be persistent in prayer. While I have no objection to the theme of prayer, the story illustrates to me the audacity of seeking justice. It  says very clearly that justice has to be demanded. Justice does not become obsolete in time. The way to correct injustice is to provide justice.

For me, women of the Bible, women of faith communities, women of the world and all people seeking justice for themselves, for others and for our earth inspire me to believe that change is possible even in the most difficult environment.

My current job as the CEO of  one of Foundations devoted to women’s human rights keeps me centered on hearing women directly from the lives of women  and girls in more than 175 countries. The Global Fund For Women began as an idea to do things differently, shift the approach of international development by putting funds in the hands of women, for initiatives that protect the human rights of women and girls.  We fund and advocate with women who organize themesleves in movements that demand justice.  We prioritize populations that are hard to reach – widows, rural women, single mothers, women living with HIV, women’s rights activists, peace activists, women advocating for sexual heath and rights, environmental activists, women workers,  women in slums, women in conflict and post-conflict countries, women farmers, indigenous women and women working for political, religious and cultural inclusion. These are populations that usually have difficulties geeting  a meeting with donors. Many are often shunned by religions and some of  them are ostracized  by faith commmnities  because  they don’t  fit the category of good women.

The women we support are challenging the status quo in communities that tell her that because she’s born female, she shouldn’t pursue education, she shouldn’t sit in on community meetings, her opinion is not important, she should focus on chores defined for her by long held traditions. She is told to remain silent if she’s a victim of violence, her presence is not needed in Parliament or to broker peace accords.

Today everywhere in the world, women are breaking the silence on their oppression and violence. Women have accessed education and they continue to struggle to better access health care, economic stability, environmental security, and human rights for themselves and their communities and families. Women have done this with limited resources, while continuing to work as mothers, grandmothers, aunts, daughters, career women, public servants, educators, voluteers and so on. These women sustain my energy and give me hope for tomorrow.

Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality and the belief that data informs but it does not spell doom for us. It is the belief that reality can be changed for the better. Hope therefore is resistance. It actively resists the void of hopelessness by working for alternatives. Thus hope is not merely an intellectual frame of mind. Hope is to be lived out. To hope for justice and peace is to work for elimination of injustice and to be a peacemaker. To hope for democracy means to practice being democratic in our personal relationships. To hope for wholeness means to face our own lack of wholeness with courage and to be prepared to go through the pain of self-examination, which leads to change.

Efforts to achieve tranformation are often hindered by self defeating conviction that change is impossible or will only come slowly,  and we have no hope of bringing change in a timely manner. This hopeless mentality must be avoided at all costs. Instead,  we must be change makers by holding hope high and exercising the principle of ‘justice  for all” not “ just us”.  Delayed justice enhances distrust, hatred, fear and it does kill people. It is expensive to repair damaged souls and  bodies and impossible to ressurect the dead even when you belong to a faith community that did  resurect some dead people. Hence I say here and now:  IT is Time.This is the time to be active for justice.  “Justice delayed is justice  denied”.

 

Happy International Women’s Day

 

Dr Musimbi Kanyoro is a theology scholar, researcher, women’s rights activist, social change philanthropy advocate and public speaker. She is currently the CEO of Global Fund for Women (USA) a grantmaking foundation that has supported millions of women around the world.

 

 

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