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RGOD2: The intersections of oppression and violence

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women gathers at its midpoint on Friday, March 13 with a huge intergenerational dialogue between the older activists who attended the historic Global Women’s Conference in Beijing 20 years ago, and the new generations of women activists and male allies.

The whole day is basically devoted to the sharing of experiences and review of what has improved and what has still to be achieved by women around the world. The Beijing Platform became the internationally agreed measure on how the world was going to catch up on the economic, health and educational gaps between men and women that perpetuated cycles of extreme poverty and violence.

Although progress has been made on some fronts, it is clear there is a gap between government and civil society’s commitment to create legislation to end discrimination and violence against women but there remain many examples of global blind spots impeding the actually implementation of these laws. Making laws on gender equality may help, but looking back over 20 years, conference participants are wondering why they are not changing attitudes and behaviors fast enough? Other strategies are clearly needed. There has been a lot of activity in words and on paper but the bottom line appears to be the lack of political or moral will to fulfil the spirit of Beijing and much more needs to be done at every level and in every sector to bridge the gap.

Awed by courage

Last Sunday, I spent a full day in the Apollo Theater in Harlem in the presence of some of the founders of this movement reflecting on the difficult journey. NGO CSW Forum gave an excellent overview of the work to date and what needed to be achieved at the 59th session this week.

Over 450 side events have been planned around the conference including our own event tonight in the Riverside Church: “Women of Faith. Women of Doubt.”

Dr. Gertrude Mongella, a former UN Under-Secretary General from Tanzania, described the journey like sitting behind a man driving a car very slowly in a narrow road and he is holding up the cars behind him. Dr. Mongella brought the house down in laughter when she said to the gathering of several thousand women and male allies, it is time to overtake the men driving the car at their pace. Women need to set their own agendas and move the goals of the Beijing Platform at a different pace than the one controlled by men.

Former Irish President Mary Robinson sat among a panel of young people and talked about being inspired by their work and commitment to gender issues. She reminded the audience she was elected to the Irish Senate at 25 years old, and her work as an attorney helped to legalize contraception in conservative Catholic Ireland and decriminalize homosexuality from the laws that still apply in nearly 80 countries.

Robinson is one of my heroes. She made an enormous difference to my native country and has gone on to work on other cross-cutting issues at the UN. She also reminded the audience that the days of single issue causes were truly over, and talked passionately about her new role in the UN, overseeing the effects of climate change on all aspects of our common life. She gave examples of how climate change is affecting women all over the world and we can no longer silo it as an issue other people have to fight. Robinson embodies cross-collaboration on all the important issues facing our world. Several years ago, I heard she was going to retire to spend more time with her grandchildren in Ireland, but clearly she is concerned about the world they are inheriting and here she is, still working at full blast!

Development and human rights are not enough by themselves

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka from South Africa -- the current UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director for UN Women -- also referred to this cross-cutting theme that permeated this week’s discussions. We cannot see women’s issues purely as either a human rights or a development issue. Often when rights and development issues were addressed, there were still major obstacles for women to overcome because of culture, traditional gender roles or religion.

Human rights should not be seen as one separate focal point for the movement but is cross cutting and by itself, is still not the panacea to fix the systemic issues that largely remain unaddressed. I found this a particularly relevant insight for the LGBT movement where we have largely placed all our eggs in the human rights basket. Yes, human rights are important, but what about find a meaningful job or feeling safe and free from violence?

The larger context of LGBT violence

It is clear from many of the workshops that I and our St. Paul’s Foundation delegation attended, that gender-based violence is something demanding urgent attention and sometimes as LGBT people, we feel violence is mainly directed against us or it is also isolated and specifically directed towards our issue. This is not what I heard this week from the many events I attended.

This is a learning experience for me. I wanted to listen and to see where our story might connect with a larger story. Violence directed towards LGBT people, particularly transgender or lesbians, is part of a larger human illness that we share in common with over half the global population. There is agreement across the board, including in all of the significant religious traditions that all forms of gender based violence is morally wrong. All of the workshops we attended addressed LGBT issues in some form. Many LGBT and ally organizations worked hard to make our presence and issues heard. This is good to know because often our movement can feel we are more isolated than we actually are. That was good news.

One workshop I attended was sponsored by some U.S. religious organizations working on sexual and gender based violence domestically. They talked about 45% of the homeless young people they work with, who are LGBT.

Three women gave powerful testimonies about their journey with domestic violence. Two of them killed their husbands because the abuse was so relentless and the police and authorities failed to protect them, while one lost her child who was thrown on the floor by an abusive boyfriend. All three served extensive prison sentences. The panel talked about the reluctance of the faith community to address domestic violence in their congregations where they estimate 1 in 3 people are either abusers or victims. Clergy are not prepared to deal with domestic violence in their own families and congregations so there is a high level of avoidance. The panel presented training opportunities to help leaders address and respond at a grass roots level and reduce the denial and suffering.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Justin Welby, and Pope Francis

Human trafficking

Another remarkable workshop was led by the Anglican Envoy to the Holy See in Rome, Archbishop David Moxon, who presented a new project designed to break the cycle of violence through human trafficking. Moxon described the hidden economy, now larger than the oil industry, where 30 million to 40 million human beings have no voices, no passports, are often without money or resources to help them out of the vicious cycle of poverty, the sex slave industry or cheap or free labor markets.

Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Justin Welby, and Pope Francis agreed to work on an inter-faith project designed to undermine and offer alternative financing to the human trafficking industry. The Global Freedom Network was created by religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu traditions with a $25M investment from Australian philanthropist Andrew Forrest to “fight the evil of modern slavery and human trafficking.” Their strategy is to encourage large companies to complete “supply chain proofing” in an attempt to identify companies or resources in a product where human trafficking is identified in some form and to isolate their product with a goal to eventually bankrupt them if they do not comply with more ethical business standards. Hewlett Packard has already completed its supply chain proofing and Apple has agreed to do it. The Archbishop of Canterbury is going to convene a meeting of all of the largest companies in the UK later this year and invite them to partner with the inter-faith community to help eradicate slavery by 2020.

Even in largely Muslim countries, Moxon reported agreement that slavery, considered extremely profitable for the few, it was not good for any society to endorse this “crime against humanity.” Moxon talked about the reaction from the international Muslim community when ISIS has reinstated slave markets and insists slavery is necessary for a future Islamist economy. This has met with universal outrage and the organization of the Global Freedom Network is but one attempt to say “no” to a direction proposed by the growing trafficking industry.

The faith community is also investing in micro-economies to offer alternative ways for people to make a living and create a viable sustainable community where their dignity and hope is not taken from them. The project is brand new and I am sure there will be problems and issues, but the thrust of this initiative will hopefully break some of the inertia that the opening panels identified. Even the controversial issue of female genital mutilation and child brides that has often been endorsed by religious communities in the Global South appears to be gaining ground that it is a form of sex abuse and sex slavery. This is a huge step forward for many of these faith leaders and there is an opportunity for LGBT people, often trapped in poverty, trafficking and forms of slavery and gender-based violence to also make their voices known. The St. Paul’s Foundation has had a meeting with Archbishop Moxon in Rome and we intend to advocate for more attention and specific programs and resources for LGBT people who are also caught in this inhumanity.

Helpful trends and statistics

I was reminded by some research carried out by the Williams Institute at UCLA that related to why it is important for the LGBT movement to build greater alliances with the women’s movement globally. NORC at the University of Chicago, in collaboration with Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul and the Williams Institute, reported that 90% of countries surveyed have become more accepting of homosexuality in the last 20 years. Four compelling reasons stand out:

1. On average, women are more than one and a half times more likely to be accepting of lesbian and gay people than men.

2. In 98% of countries surveyed, those under 30 are more likely to say that same-gender sex is not wrong at all, compared to those 65 and older. The average gap in supportiveness between these age groups is 23.4%.

3. Individuals who have an educational attainment that is beyond secondary school are about two times more likely to be accepting of lesbian and gay people than individuals who have not attained a secondary school education.

4. The level of economic development positively relates to acceptance of lesbian and gay people. Residents of countries whose economies that are in the top quartile are on average 12 times more likely to be supportive of homosexuality than residents of countries whose economies are in the bottom quartile.

The more we support women’s and girl’s education, the more informed allies we create while reducing global poverty and gender-based violence. We need to spend more time sharing our experiences between the generations, as CSW is doing today. Brilliant move!

Climate change and human trafficking loom large to the younger generation and what can we do to engage and prepare for these new challenges? Development and economic progress can also positively impact LGBT people, as this study suggests, but the moral question of the more developed countries taking advantage over the less developed ones through slave or cheap labor remains an elephant in the room? As some of the earlier speakers indicated, development and economic development is a cross-cutting theme, but at what price? How many millions of people, LGBT or straight must remain in the fetters of poverty and inequality, so fewer and fewer on the planet can experience the good life?

Immersing myself and the plight of our international community in the issues before the UN this week has been a really valuable experience and there are still many unresolved questions. But the takeaway for me is simply to continue to organize at the grassroots level and build as many alliances and shared projects as we can, especially around meaningful work and deeper conversations and projects with the faith community. There is a political will from some sectors to move the agenda forward and there will always be the guy in the car in front of us who wants to take it much slower than we want to travel. The lesson learned this week is that we are not alone in the overtaking car.

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RGOD2 looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view and is written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, Vicar of St. Peter’s, Lithgow in Millbrook, New York. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of San Diego-based St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.