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RGOD2: Global women’s work ends in New York, but is anyone listening?

Three-thousand women are returning home from the UN after a unique opportunity to share insights and listen to one another. The question remains simply: Were they talking to themselves, or did the world hear about their courage, achievements and their cries?

It was a deeply moving experience for me to listen into this difficult global conversation. Just as LGBT rights in the USA have ensured many of us live in relative safety and comfort, gender equality in the USA has also created a bubble for American women that is not the reality for most women and girls in the world.

2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the historic meeting of women in Beijing, China so the UN Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW59) has been reflecting on progress made and challenges still to be overcome. Even in the USA, women are still denied equal access to earn money in the same way men are earning 78 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. Their collective call to action invites all of us.

Engaging religion and culture as the last bastions of male privilege

As a religious leader, it was surprising to me to hear new insights from some of the founding women leaders who, 20 years ago, created the Beijing Platform for Action. They now see gender inequality, not only an issue of economic development or human rights, but an issue that demands we look at the very essence of our cultures and religions to change the soil from which this inequality germinates.

In the past eight years, there has been a growing number of UN Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) who invariably take a more conservative religious interpretation of holy texts to define gender roles. Their effective lobbying is causing enormous push-back on gains within the women’s community, particularly around sexual and reproductive rights.

Many of our mainstream American churches including my own Episcopal Church have been consistently clear through years of affirmative resolutions at various Conventions, yet we are a small denominations voice among many. We compete against large, well-funded international campaigns to define “the family” in ways the UN has never defined it before. There is a revisionist and simplistic agenda where global gender-equality issues are demoted to that of a mere secular Western agenda imposed from the Global North on the more traditional religious and cultural values of the Global South.

This ideological conflict came to a head in 2012 when the Human Rights Council passed a resolution, led by Russia, where states who had previously agreed to international documents on human rights, could opt out of these agreements if proposed laws and resolutions conflicted with their traditional values or religious beliefs. Organizations like C Fam, Opus Dei, Family Watch International (Mormon led) have had, in recent years, extraordinary influence at the United Nations on the redefinition of the family, family values, and traditional roles of men and women. Human Rights are trumped by Divine Rights (or the interpretation thereof?) This conflict is having important repercussions on the future international agreements, expressed in important documents like the proposed Sustainable Development Goals

To what extent governments in particular, will allow grassroots and civil-society organizations to shape the future agenda, or simply exclude or control them, we are hearing from these engaged and concerned women. CSW is one of the most important platforms for women to be heard in a shrinking public square, now dominated by conservative religious and cultural voices, often bribed by self-interested politicians. It is vital for the mainstream churches and progressive faith communities like the Episcopal Church voice to advocate more collaboratively for gender and LGBT equality, not only in the USA but around the world. This is why our presence at CSW this year was so important.

With 80 countries still having legal and constitutional barriers that discriminate against women (particularly around property rights) the question many people are asking at CSW this year is simply, how do we remove the barriers and step up the commitment to gender equality so that more women and girls can emerge from poverty, ill health, gender-based and sexual violence and human trafficking? The faith community shares responsibility with governments and the business sector to ensure these barriers remain or are dismantled in the next decade. There are a couple of examples where cutting edge inter-faith work is being developed as attempts to break through this inertia and move the agenda forward, particularly around health, gender based violence and ending human trafficking, one of the most lucrative growing economies, surpassing the oil industry.

Empowering women of faith

Maxensia Nakibuuka from Uganda spoke passionately in front of my congregation at St. Peter’s, Lithgow last Sunday. She talked about her work and why it was important to be attending the Commission’s meetings this year.

She was invited by the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation to present on a panel linking LGBT and gender-equality issues in the Global South and by the Huairou Commission, a Brooklyn-based network of grassroots women’s organizations throughout the world.

Maxensia spoke powerfully at all three events about the need for grassroots economic empowerment of women so the church excluded no-one. Even lesbian, transgender and bisexual women needed to have meaningful work, equal access to education and health services. With 40% of health services provided by the faith community in Africa, Maxensia represents a powerful shield to protect rather than a sword to exclude. Her desire to include all the voices of women come from her Christian faith and her experience of being stigmatized.

Her remarkable story begins in Uganda where she buried eight of her siblings because of HIV and had to care for many of their children. She recounted this story on the floor of the UN General Assembly five years ago when we first met. Her husband infected her, even though he blamed her for bringing the virus into their Catholic-sanctified marriage. When he died, Maxensia was merely seen as her husband’s property and was evicted with her four children from their home by his blood family.

“Although women contribute over 60% of Uganda’s economic growth and development through their hard work in families, on the land and to society as a whole, we are still second class citizens and the property of our husbands. We have no rights. Our culture and religion ensure women remain powerless and do not own anything because we are also looked on as property to be owned.”

Maxensia is also an adviser to the ancient Buganda Kingdom, now a political and cultural entity within the Victorian-created Uganda. The tribe was co-opted by the British as the dominant tribe over neighboring ones during Africa’s tragic Colonial period.

“As Buganda, we discuss who will be the heirs to our land and property and it is never considered to be given to a woman within the existing cultural systems. Add to this the biblical idea that a woman has to leave her family to be married to a man and they become “one.” Even the Bible describes the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 where only men are counted. Women and children are invisible. This is still the case in many places today. Culture and religion still places women in a vulnerable place where stereotypes (a woman’s place is in the home) and stigma pervades everything.”
“I have been reading stories about women who live around our lakes and they are so poor that they exchange sex for fish!” She frowns and takes a deep breath. I know we have lots of women in parliament and even in government, but what are we doing to help these women? Economic poverty often leads to poverty of spirit.”

Hearing Maxensia’s anger at these indignities reminded me of a phrase we Episcopalians use in Morning Prayer: “Let not the hope of the poor be taken away.” Last Sunday, three of us presented our reflections at St. Peter’s Lithgow on the Commission’s work.

The weeping women

Catherine Howard is a member of our congregation and was moved by Episcopal Bishop Chilton Knudsen’s sermon to the Anglican delegation to CSW, meeting at the Episcopal Church Center on the first day of the Commission. The appointed gospel reading recalled how Mary Magdalene came to the Jesus tomb in grief and loss and in her disorientation, she hears the voice of someone she believes to be the gardener who tells her to stop weeping and to go and tell the disciples that Jesus was risen.

Maxensia, as a Roman Catholic Ugandan, had never seen or heard a woman bishop before, but we were all touched by the bishop’s message linking the weeping of Mary to the weeping of women and girls all over the world and its root causes. We were also charged by the bishop to go and so something about it as Jesus charged Mary. Catherine found the service deeply moving and a sense of a global consciousness that she never felt before and talked about how this same prayer: “Let not the hope of the poor be taken away” had a different meaning.

“The Bottom line is that we can answer that prayer ourselves. God has already blessed us with this ability and calling we hear about in today’s Epistle to the Ephesians. We are God's agents of cure and yet we stand in the way of solving hunger, gender violence, oppression etc. Let's not stop at prayer thinking a magic wand will sweep over us and will give people hope. That already happened. We are empowered to give hope through daily simple actions as well as large ones. We all need to do both for anything real is to be changed.”

From prayer to action

In closing, some words of Madame Lagarde, the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund, are ringing in my head when she describes some of the push-back observed from partner states at the IMF and the World Bank when gender equality issues are discussed. Often motivated by religious and cultural values, the push-back is real, but Lagarde describes what happens when micro-loans and barriers to economic development or holding property are removed.

“Even the most conservative states cannot argue with the numbers” and she went on to describe how the effect of women’s development on the whole local and state economies for everyone over the past decade is still remarkable and has enormous untapped potential. Many of us witnessed that potential this week and doing something to unfetter it further at local, national and international levels needs to move from a simple prayer to a tangible action.

Next steps

Maxensia had some important meetings in the Washington DC area this week as a result of the advocacy of the St. Paul’s Foundation with Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore and World Vision in Washington.

As newly appointed coordinator for HIV services for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kampala, she is seeking faith partners to help with funding for health and economic development programs that welcome LGBT people’s leadership and participation. She will also be meeting with USAID with some of our DC-based board members. She returns on Wednesday to begin a huge new job and without support from outside, she will simply not succeed because the problems are so enormous.

I continue with my travels today to close out CSW with Angeline Jackson’s visit to Miami this weekend. We have arranged a meeting of LGBT organizations at Trinity Cathedral in Miami to hear about CSW and the particular implications for LGBT people in difficult contexts like Jamaica where LGBT people remain criminals and constantly hounded by the churches there.

To what extent these two women will gain some support over the next few weeks will indicate the impact of the 450+ workshops and side events at CSW this year. It is up to all of us to help them to implement the programs and strategies they talked about and to magnify this engagement on a global scale.

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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.