Anglican Women's Empowerment confronts plight of the girl child

More than 80 Anglican delegates gather for United Nations Commission on the Status of Women
February 26, 2007

It is by investing in the girls of today "that we empower the women of tomorrow," declared Rima Salah, deputy executive director of UNICEF, to 300 women on February 24 at Trinity Church, Wall Street. The more than 80 Anglican delegates to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) had gathered there with friends ahead of their February 26-March 9 meeting in New York City. "Girls Claiming the Future: Hopes and Challenges," billed as a celebration of the delegates and their focus on global issues of the girl child, offered the women from every region of the world a chance to hear the good news of their growing strength and the brutal news of their suffering children, especially girl children. The effort to bring the women from all 38 provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion is that of the Office of the Anglican Observer at the United Nations and Anglican Women's Empowerment (AWE) -- an international grassroots movement founded in 2003 to use the power of women's voices and presence to pursue a humane agenda for women worldwide. The Anglican delegation is the largest non-governmental delegation to the UNCSW, an annual meeting that brings thousands of women from around the world to New York in part to address the challenges raised by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially Goal 3 which calls for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. The delegates, selected by their Primates -- the Communion's presiding bishops, archbishops and moderators -- attend nearly two weeks of meetings with the commission, an arm of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The delegation this year includes 10 teenage girls, aged 13 to 18. All were present at Trinity. Several would speak. "Our gathering here proclaims that the time is now more than ever for women to answer the Gospel call," said the Rev. Margaret Rose, director of women's ministries for the Episcopal Church, in her introduction. "Women for eons have been doing Isaiah's work -- repairing, restoring, feeding, clothing, caring for the sick. In the work at the United Nations, Anglican women are going public and claiming a public voice for this work calling on governments and churches to implement policies for change." In her welcome, Rose tempered the celebration. "This year, as we rejoice in seeing women taking top leadership positions in the church, in government and in civil society, we become ever more aware of the gaps in the well being of those whose opportunities are circumscribed by poverty, cultural norms, or a society that does not truly recognize them as made in the image of God. This year's theme of the UNSCW, 'The Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination and Violence Against Girls,' points this out sharply." The evening's three main speakers delivered sharp messages of warning, reality and challenge. The first, Salah, born in Jerusalem and raised in a refugee camp in Jordan, spelled out the dangers faced by girl children around the world. They are the last to be fed, the first to be kept home from school. They are at the greatest risk of violence, the greatest risk of HIV/AIDS, she said. Sex selection and too early child bearing will kill thousands of them. Nearly 3 million will suffer genital mutilation. In conflict situations and war, girls are always most at risk. "They are raped, tortured, forced into prostitution." Yet, said Salah, a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, when she talks to girls about their dreams, she feels hope and a renewed dedication to change the reality. "We have the means," she said, naming two United Nations initiatives -- CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which was adopted in 1979 by the General Assembly) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. "We need to ensure these are implemented," she said to applause. Carol Jenkins, president of the Women's Media Center and the second speaker, told of traveling in Africa and Asia and seeing girls involved in the sex trade. In Madagascar, when she asked about what was happening, she learned that the children being exploited were ages 4, 5 and 6. "How can there be so many demented people in the world?" Part of the blame, she said, belonged to the media and its failure to "urgently tell these stories." The media is still sending out distorted messages and women still hold only 3 percent of the top positions, "the positions with clout," she said. She illustrated her point by telling the story of Abeer, age 14, an Iraqi girl gang raped and murdered by US soldiers along with other members of her family. As the Women’s Media Center attempted to get journalists to pay attention to the story, they were continually rebuffed. The too-frequent response to their insistence, she said, was "How important can a 14-year-old be?" "Go to our website," she asked. "Read her story." Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the third speaker of the afternoon, issued a challenge: "Continue to agitate, nag, pester and challenge the people and systems of this world so that all children, all girl children and all boy children, can have an appropriate sense of pride in the way in which they have been created." Three teenage delegates invited to ask questions of the speakers followed. Anne Wenk, 14, of Brooklyn asked Jenkins what responsibility the media bore for women's difficulties. Jenkins handed the responsibility right back to her: "Write those letters, pick up that phone, send e-mails and say 'I am expecting to see women in your stories.' The media belongs to you and you have the ultimate responsibility to shape what you see there." Deepti Steffi from North India, lamenting the inequality of girls' education and the ways in which they are too frequently treated and abused, asked Salah how the injustices could be overcome. "We have to hold our elected leaders accountable," she said, explaining how they all came to the United Nations and committed themselves to the Millennium Development Goals. As the program drew to a close, Jefferts Schori announced the formation of the AWE Global Fund. The fund and its projects around the Communion will enable girls 8 to 18 "to claim a better life." It will address "unequal education, family reunification, rape, child marriage, domestic violence and war," said Jefferts Schori. "Be generous." Words of assurance The day before the celebration at Trinity, a standing-room-only crowd of women packed the chapel at the Episcopal Church Center for a Eucharist celebrated by Jefferts Schori. The faces, dress and languages of the women revealed their many nations as their voices blended in hymns from the Americas, Scotland, Ireland and Nigeria. After a lament from Jeremiah -- "the young girls of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground. My eyes are spent with weeping" -- the women sang a lyric by Brigid Pailthorp from Voices Found: "Strike our binding chains asunder, liberate our cramping ways. May our lives reflect your splendor, in abundance, Lord we ask. God, our guide and our befriender, give new meaning to our task." Then they listened to Jefferts Schori who brought them words of assurance. "God's vision is stronger than death ... His command ... is a call to the whole world –- get up, expect and demand the kind of healing God envisions for us all, and then go and feed the world." Jefferts Schori told of women whose lives had brought healing, had changed the communities around them. "Somaly Mam was sold into slavery as a young girl. When she finally emerged from her chains and found some healing herself, she went back into those dungeons and brought other girls out of their bondage. She bought them, redeemed them for life, and took them to a refuge where they might begin to heal. She continues that work today, one girl as a time." She told of a woman she met last fall who aids women in Afghani villages. "Connie Duckworth, through an enterprise called Arzu, has helped women weavers to improve their product, and pays them 150 percent of the going rate for their rugs, but only if they agree to send their daughters to school." The presiding bishop concluded her sermon by reaffirming that one can indeed change the world. "Together women can lead this world into the vision God has for us all. Bless your labors, that there may come a time when children do not die in their mothers' arms, when girls everywhere live in freedom and equality, without fear of violence or oppression. May God's reign be known on earth." Hesitant hopes When the delegates arrived at the Episcopal Church Center on their first day they walked into a lobby where the art, poetry and missives of their younger sisters across the Communion had been pinned up in colorful array, reminding them of injustices faced by girl children and of the tender, hesitant hopes many had for futures free of past limits. "I want to live fearlessly," wrote 12-year-old Isha George of Christ Church in Guwahati, Diocese of North India, "but my questions remain unanswered. Is it my parents or society who will provide me safety and let me live free from inequality just because I am a girl?" George's letter, illustrated with her picture -- a smiling girl with good posture in a crisp school uniform -- drew stares and sighs. "When I look around I see girls often become victims of rape, murder, dowry, and what is known as 'bride burning.' Young girls are forced to marry against their choice, parents want to get rid of them because for them girl is a burden ... Sometimes parents are ashamed of having baby daughters instead of boys and then the girl babies are killed." A 16-year-old from Thailand identified only as Pui had written: "I don't understand about a mother's care. Is it true that a mother's hug is warm? Eating a family dinner is only a dream for me. I've never heard a mother's lullaby. I've never felt the warmth of someone tucking me into bed. My heart has never been warm even when I'm warm in bed. I always sleep alone." The note below Pui's poem reports that Pui's mother, sold into prostitution as a young girl, died of AIDS. The last line of Pui's poem begs: "Mother, if you are still alive, wherever you are, whoever you are, please send love to me. If you hear me now, please think of me a little bit ... I promise. I will be a good child." Further information about AWE and the UNCSW is available here and Trinity Church's telecast of the gathering can be viewed at their website.