When Marcie Lipscomb visited Rwanda in April 2004, she planned to observe the 10-year memorial of the genocide that devastated the small African country. But talking to Rwandan women about their daily struggles sparked Lipscomb's interest in issues affecting women across the world.
During her visit, Lipscomb met women whose husbands had been killed in the genocide -- and others whose husbands were in jail for perpetrating the killings. She met women struggling to provide for their families in a country recovering from years of terror and civil war.
“I prayed with them for their lives, for reconciliation,” she said. “I learned a lot about the life the East African women have to deal with.” These conversations gave Lipscomb new perspective on the challenges women face in countries outside the United States and the drastic differences that separate them from their American counterparts.
“Many [women] have the levels of concern that are so basic: How do we feed our families, how do we put shoes on their feet, how do we deal with government instability and community instability,” she said. “It really opened my eyes to the diversity of the people around the world.”
In March, Lipscomb joined 36 female delegates from the Episcopal Church and 41 from the worldwide Anglican Communion at the 49th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The two-week event drew politicians and representatives from civic organizations to the U.N. headquarters in New York to discuss issues affecting women.
During the meeting, the Anglican representatives observed presentations at the U.N. General Assembly and joined thousands of other participants in breakout sessions focusing on topics from AIDS to volunteerism to civil rights.
Lipscomb, wife of Bishop John Lipscomb of Southwest Florida, said she attended the commission to become more involved in supporting women's ministries. Through connections she made in Rwanda and doing missionary work in the Dominican Republic, Lipscomb developed an interest in reproductive health -- specifically, preventing unwanted pregnancies -- and attended breakout sessions focusing on those issues.
“It certainly is a concern here in the United States when children are born and are not being cared for physically or emotionally,” she said. “I see it as an issue I would like to have some influence on.”
Finding their voices
For Phoebe Griswold, wife of Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, the commission presented an opportunity for Anglican women to assert their influence in the church, where men far outnumber them in leadership positions. Of the more than 800 leaders in the communion -- including the archbishop of Canterbury, primates, bishops and members of the Anglican Consultative Council – 30 are women.
Griswold said she hoped participation in the U.N. commission would lead to women's inclusion in Anglican governing bodies, “where women's voices come forward and build structures that work.”
“We don't have enough women's voices in the leadership positions in the church: Where women can set policy, where women can say where the money should be sent, where women can say what should be structured toward family life,” she said.
Women are most involved in the church's mission “on the ground,” working with orphans, AIDS patients and people affected by poverty, she said. But, she said, the Anglican Communion's governing bodies could benefit from women’s unique perspectives – a topic discussed during a breakout session.
“One of the talks about women in the peace process said that in times of conflict -- which is most times -- life is so unsettled, and women can come forth and offer better, more humane ways of doing things,” she said. “It is time for women to find their voices."
A time to learn
Lois Bennett, a systems administrator from Somerville, Mass., “scraped together vacation time, sick time” to attend the commission. Bennett, who attends Saint Peter's Episcopal Church in Cambridge, is treasurer for Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, which promotes the eight U.N. Millennium Development Goals. She attended the commission to try to connect with people who shared a common commitment to development work, she said. “I lugged a lot of brochures down for the Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation and handed them out to people.”
While promoting gender equality is a millennium goal, Bennett said learning about women's issues was not her primary reason for attending the commission. She attended many breakout sessions related to other development goals, for instance, eradicating poverty and fighting AIDS.
But she was interested to learn how women in developing countries are uniquely affected by certain issues because of their gender. “Learning about women's status in the world was really important to me,” she said. “There was a lot I didn't know.”
An international perspective
The commission also gave Episcopal delegates an opportunity to meet Anglican women from around the world. This made the experience especially meaningful to Carole Jan Lee, 70, a member of St. James' Parish in San Francisco.
"Gathering together as church women gave a wonderful spiritual dimension to everything that we engaged in," Lee, an Asian woman, wrote in an e-mail after the commission. "The women will certainly provide a strong voice back in their respective communions toward gender equality throughout."
Blandina Salvador, a Filipina from Jackson Heights, N.Y., said the stories victims told of poverty, AIDS, violence against women and other injustices were among the commission's most moving moments. Hearing how women overcame adversity inspired Salvador to share their stories with members of her home congregation at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Long Island.
"What was truly amazing is how each of the victimized women bounced back and now engaged in making sure that the next woman does not go through similar experiences," Salvador wrote in an e-mail. "Picturing myself in their situation empowered me ... to be involved by relating these same stories to the women of the pew in my parish and other women acquaintances."
Inez Saley, 67, a Philippines-born U.S. citizen, recently joined the Anglican Women Empowerment Task Force but knew little about the U.N. commission before she attended its March assembly. There, she learned about the difficulties women face in countries that are still working to fully incorporate Western ideals like civil rights.
"Hearing one of the delegates from India talk about how women are treated in her part of the country made me realize how blessed I am [to live in the United States]," Saley wrote in a recent e-mail.
Discussions with international delegates revealed to Saley that many women worldwide are struggling for equal rights and recognition against deep-rooted cultural traditions in their home countries.
But while the commission gave Saley a better understanding of those customs, it also left her wondering: "How do we fight culture?"
Platform: Decade of progress
For the past 10 years, the commission's focus has been promoting the Beijing Platform for Action, a declaration made at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 to advance women's equality and development worldwide. Promoting the political goals described in the platform is a key goal for the Office of Women's Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, said Director Margaret Rose.
“Women of faith, Christian women in particular, have a responsibility to the world -- a responsibility to act politically,” she said. “I don't mean as a Democrat or Republican; I mean to act in the police, in the city, in the world.”
Rose – like Griswold -- said she hoped to see more women in leadership positions in the Episcopal Church and in political bodies worldwide. “My faith is not just lived out in the pew of my church in quiet prayer, although that is important,” she said. “It is about speaking publicly about what we believe.”