Fulfilling The Purpose Of Life

By Sharon Yendevenge, World YWCA Programme Associate and member of the YWCA Papua New Guinea.

Life is a gift from God, a series of events that make up our precious lives. Life is a journey and not a destination as we think. Those events make up the journey of life. As we go into Easter, let us reflect on our own lives.

Walking through the journey of life is not easy, no one said life is easy and no one knows how to walk through it without encountering the obstacles of life. We sometimes judge our lives as worthless, full of labour, misery and without purpose. Only the one who created us knows the successes and the struggles. There is a purpose to life for everyone and a calling where we need to identify. You’ll never know what your calling is until you really sit down and reflect back on your life. Sometimes you do what you do but don’t actually realise until someone tells you. It may be a gift in music, singing, volleyball, swimming, serving others, healing and the list goes on. So for me, my journey of life was not easy and I have had learnt the hard way through.

Sharon Y

Sharon Yendevenge

Surviving in life and being content with what I have is the most important thing for me, I appreciate everyone around me who has contributed to my life including family, friends, those people whom I have worked with and my school life. I realised that I am most passionate about working with other people, especially young women including adolescent girls. I find it much easier to communicate with this age group and share my own experiences.

In my own country of Papua New Guinea (PNG), young women have a lack of knowledge and understanding on sexual and reproductive health rights and HIV and violence against women. This makes me wonder about the next generation if more than 50% of the young women in PNG are NOT  informed of their rights. It is so scary to look at the statistics in STI’s and HIV and the violence faced by women every day. One in three women and girls will face violence or sexual abuse in their lives and very often don’t actually know where to run to or seek advice. Therefore, the only way we can help reduce such is to educate as many young women and girls as we can everyday through information sharing regardless of where we are and what tools we have. One conversation can save a thousand lives. No conversation and silence can destroy more than a thousand lives. Remember, a woman encounters so much during a day and yet can feed her family likewise a young woman and a girl also encounter violence but remain silent because of fear but manages to do her duties within her family. It may be your sister, mother, aunty, wife, grandmother, and girlfriend. No matter where we are in life and what our calling is, we have a purpose to serve, only then can we make a change. Together we can reduce the negativities of life.

We all need to pursue our dreams to fulfil our purpose in life. In helping both women, young women girls and men, young men and boys understand the realities of life. Having had the chance to listen to the many individuals I have come across (male/female, young /old) has brought tears, laughter, joy to me by sharing their stories – life stories. For the young, the events in their lives have been a lesson to learn and for the old, it has been a journey of lessons learned and some regrets. Considering the fact that life itself gave them hope and to move on and to share their stories to others has brought change and gave the other person hope in life. Our lives are meant to give hope to others through our stories and our actions.

Jesus himself led a life full of hope to the many and is a perfect example of hope. He gave hope to Martha and Mary by raising Lazarus from death to life. You may also have your stories in your journey of life that brings hope to others. If you still think you can’t make a change in a person’s life, then use this time, use your story to bring hope to others.

Where Religion and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Meet.

By: Hendrica Okondo, Global Programme Manager SRHR and HIV and AIDS- Focal Point: AfricaImage

Although religious beliefs are a barrier for women to claim their rights, there are opportunities to work with religious leaders as not all religious groups are restrictive. There are some who are listening and meeting women in the difficult situations they live in. One way of working with religious groups is by looking at their values, especially with Christian groups. By looking at their Christian values we can address SRHR through the values of justice, compassion and love. There is also a way we can engage religious groups as there is a big gap between the rhetoric of the mainstream conservative groups and the realities within which the church operates and provides services so there is an element of compassion that can be used. Instead of profiling all faith communities as conservative and difficult to work with, we might want to think about engaging with them by having dialogues. Of course there are those that are inflexible and won’t change because it is within their hierarchal structures and traditional beliefs, but even within that there are common areas of engaging around women and children’s health. So as women’s rights activist and feminists we really need to start the dialogue.

As World YWCA and ARROW are funded through NORAD to have these dialogues, we also need to engage to make sure that they happen. The ultra-conservative groups may not want to discuss. But they are not against education. On the whole religious groups do not object to education or health, universal health or gender equality because it is in the fundamental basis of all religions. Every religion believes that everyone is created equal in the image of God. But it is in the traditions and norms that there is a difference, and therefore a backlash around the whole sexual rights debate and also in terms of women’s agency. So in some religions there is the whole promotion of men as the decision-maker and that women should not have agency. That is a restrictive view of religious texts.

We will be working with a circle of feminist theologians who will be coming from a theological perspective and collaborate with ARROW and working with sisters of Islam who are going to be looking from the Islamic side while we look at the Christian side. At the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) the religion leaders told us that they do not have the skills, whereas UN reports tells us these groups are powerful and well-resourced so there are mechanisms for having dialogue.

Religion for many women is the point of contact; it is the faith based organisations that provide the social support, education, health and social protection. So we need to look at what they provide at the community level. We need to go to them with a positive approach. It is not that everyone who is religious is wrong, for us as the World YWCA we are in both worlds because of our work on rights and advocacy, but we are also comfortable in the faith-based aspect because that is where our members are.

Due to the support that faith-based organisations provide they have a lot more influence in communities. It is also down to member states signing up to declarations and not implementing and not being held accountable as duty bearers. There is an accountability failure and that gap is met by faith based organisations.

Let’s not be naïve, there are groups at the end of the spectrum who want to control women’s agency and there is a backlash. But what we’re saying is why we can’t recreate 1994 at the ICPD conference, there were much more conservative views then, but we were able to have dialogues.

A standalone gender equality goal must include SRHR. Gender has to be a priority over other categories race, disability etc because no matter what you are always worse off as a women. It is a gender and human rights issue.

Gender Based Violence and the Bible

By Kgothatso Mokoena, World YWCA Programme Associate. Kgothatso is attending the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) held in Busan, Korea.

Violence against women and girls has been described as one of the most wicked, systematic and prevalent human rights abuses in the world by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

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Rev Thabo Makhoba- Arch- Bishop of Cape Town, South Africa & Kgothatso

To illustrate the scope of this atrocity and the lack of justice in many situations, is the story of 28 year old Shrien Dewani from India, who was murdered in Cape Town, South Africa. A taxi driver, Zola Tongo, admitted the murder claiming the Shrien’s husband, had offered R15,000.00 to have his wife killed! The South African courts ruled the victim’s husband could be extradited to face the charges but so far nothing has happened. There is also the tragic circumstance of Oscar Pistorious’s killing of his long term girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, falsely describedas self-defense!  Many other crimes against women remain unrecorded.

These two reports are amongst many which remind us of the negative impact of gender based violence in our communities.

South Africa has 14, 860 rape- GBV cases reported every year, and India has doubled its number to about 24,206 since 2010, of these only 26% resulted in conviction. The South Africa filed memorandum in 2010 indicated that Government and police failures were the root of crimes against women, with insuficient recognition of discrimination, exploitation and suppression of women by political leaders.

Although legislation provides the umbrella, government and social structures have left women and their causes eroding and drenched in a thunderstorm of inequality.

Every year at the Human Right Council, countries report on laws, policies and regulations and proposing new amendment or resolutions on policies in place. Recently most countries have replaced “rape” with the broader term “sexual assaults” . The change is welcome, but to me insufficient. More laws do not change the reality that existing ones remain unimplemented.

In relation to the church,  biblical injunctions are misinterpreted and used to justify the oppression of women. The church also teaches us that husbands are to love their wives in the same way Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). This “giving up‟ carries the implication of giving up one’s rights or privileges, but if Jesus is the example, it extends even to laying down one’s life for the other. This is the perspective which is to characterise a Christian husband’s attitude to his wife.

The extent to which patriarchy has distorted the scriptural teachings and messages of the world’s religions has meant that until now, many women have remained silent and accepted abuse, vulnerable to further emotional or physical violence, trapped in abusive situations and likely to blame themselves.

I was recently at the African Union Summit and the ITI organised by the World YWCA, with young women from over 45 countries. As a community worker I’ve always believed that young women must be given tools to change their communities – education, opportunities, choices, access to their rights and spaces to express themselves without fear (at schools, churches, home, etc).

I call upon civil society, religious communities,  the UN and its respective agencies to hold member states accountable. To make every effort to explore all possibilities to bring mechanisms such as the CEDAW, Beijing declaration, Resolution 1820 relevant to the millions of women and girls in the world exposed to these atrocities.

We are approaching the 2015 deadline on the MDGs, I urge our leaders to include elimination of all forms of violence against women as a target for the next phase, as we also continue with interfaith dialogues to help address this issue.

Every future atrocity – reported or not – in my country or elsewhere, confirms that there is still a long way to go. Kgothatso ya Bakoena

The Value of our “C”

Erica Lewis is a former intern from the World YWCA Office, a former board member of the YWCA Australia and Life Member of the YWCA of Canberra .

The ‘C’ in YWCA is often a source of comment for those outside the movement, and sometimes a source of discomfort inside the movement. My home association is a secular organisation that welcomes members and service users from all faiths and none. However, as a person who sees her social justice work as an extension of my faith, I look forward to participating in regional and global meetings, because I know questions of faith will be discussed.

Erica Lewis
Erica Lewis

I sometimes reflect that I am better schooled in ‘feminist thought’ than I am in theology. This has on occasion, meant sitting in pews listening to patriarchal interpretations of Christianity that I know are not the messages I take from reading the Bible – but my lack of theological training limits my ability to engage in debate. Therefore, each engagement with worship at regional and global YWCA meetings is a valuable opportunity to expand my understanding of feminist theology.

In many countries, patriarchal interpretations of scripture are used to restrict women’s rights and so it is vital that women of faith are given the theological tools to challenge interpretations of our faith that are used to support harmful traditional practices. That is why the devotions at the European Study Session will combine the study of the foundational texts of both Christianity and human rights.

Our first devotion at the European Study Session opened by each of us in turn reading aloud the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and we closed by saying the Lord’s prayer. Both activities were done in the diversity of languages of the attendees at worship. United by our membership of the World YWCA and our belief in the universality of women’s rights we reached across cultures, language and traditions to recognize the important role that faith plays in our leadership.

Faith Inspired Sexuality

By Rebecca Phwitiko, World YWCA Board Member

Rebecca as part of the World YWCA delegation to AIDS 2012 in Washington, DC shares her reflections on faith and sexuality:

In one of my favourite books on HIV and AIDS, ’28 stories of AIDS in Africa’ Stephanie Nolen says the reason why HIV and AIDS still remains a challenge is that its transmission preys on our most intimate moments. And so sitting in the workshop on young people sexuality and faith in the context of HIV during the Interfaith Pre-Conference on HIV, I felt the truth of these words.

Rebecca Phwitiko

A research by John Blevins of the Rollins School of Public Health (Emory University) finds that religion does not feed into the sexual values and activities of most young people. This I didn’t find surprising at all. But then what I found to be amazing was that there are still a lot of young people out there asking critical questions about their faith as it relates to sexuality, what does it mean that Solomon had many wives for instance?

So in my mind this is a vital opening for the faith community. There is a great need among young for more open conversations with their faith leaders about their sexuality, particularly in the context of HIV. Even in the most conservative communities, HIV has taken sex and all that comes with it to the public space. There is no longer the luxury of saying what I do with my partner, how I protect myself is a taboo subject. Sometimes these uncomfortable conversations can ‘postpone’ a new risk of exposure to HIV.

We live in an age where 61 percent of all new HIV infections are among young women, particularly in Africa. Religious entities are uniquely positioned to respond to HIV because they are pervasive and dynamic.

Churches, mosques, traditional religions, are at the heart of African society. Faith organisations need to understand the powerful entity that they can be in addressing public health issues such as the sexual and reproductive health of young women.

It is a great injustice when young women are denied their rights to sexuality education and services. And who can better champion the rights of a marginalized group, our young women, than the people that teach us about compassion, love and peace. Unfortunately the faith community has had difficulties in addressing sexuality in HIV prevention, reproductive health, family planning, and women’s empowerment. Religion has often been a barrier, and efforts to mobilise religion as a positive force for addressing these issues need to be strengthened. It is time to overcome injustices and ensure that AIDS responses improve the lives of women and girls.

The Global Sisterhood

By Michelle Higelin, World YWCA Deputy General Secretary

Elizabeth Palmer

I am in a car heading out of Los Angeles to Claremont to meet with a group of YWCA leaders who have retired to a small Californian community called Pilgrim Place. I’m feeling a little nervous as I will be meeting with Elizabeth Palmer, a living legend in the history of both the World YWCA and the international women’s movement.  Under her leadership as General Secretary of the World YWCA, the movement expanded throughout the world and we were widely known as a leading women’s NGO, chairing NGO women’s forums preceding international women’s conferences in Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi. She later tells me that our respect came from being able to convene all women’s groups to discuss the issues that mattered and not get caught up in the politics. On the two occasions I have met Elizabeth before, I know she is a woman who dares to speak her mind and she will tell me if we are not living up to her expectations.

So the car arrives, deep breath, and I descend upon Pilgrim Place.  I first meet with Mary Douglas, who despite wanting to retire here in the late 90’s, keeps getting asked to come back and support YWCAs get back on their feet.  In the last decade she has been the Interim Director of four YWCAs in the USA and has been able to turn them around from struggling groups to viable organisations.  I ask her what has been the secret to her success and she says it is leadership development and ensuring YWCAs have the skills and people they need to be able to prosper.

I also meet Betty Jo Anderson, whose story tells me that she is someone the YWCA quickly identified as a leader and continued to find new challenges to keep her busy, working at her local YWCA, the national and then later the international. She shares how she went to Turkey to set up the YWCA in an environment where organisations were unable to have Christian in their name, so she set up an organisation, which for ten years flourished as the YWCA by another name.

Elizabeth arrives.  She tells me that she is one of the oldest pilgrims at 99, although make no mistake she is sharp.  Immediately, she is questioning how we express the Christian values in our work today.  She stresses the importance of creating space in the movement to discuss who we are as the YWCA and remaining grounded in our faith and values.  Elizabeth remarks “That we are clearly talking about important issues but are we”, she says, “listening to the woman and girls who make up this great movement”.  Elizabeth says, “That this listening must inform what we do at all levels”.  The human rights principle of participation springs to mind.

Solidarity across the movement is another important message Elizabeth shares.  One of the reasons that YWCAs flourished all around the world during her time was the support of sister associations.  In Elizabeth’s day, mutual service saw YWCA women from strong associations travel to other countries to support their sisters in setting up systems and solid organisations.  Today we see this expressed in the partnerships between YWCAs like Canada and Honduras, but there is something important in this message that centres on movement building and the ability to support our sisters in times of need.

I ask these impressive women what is their vision for the YWCA movement of the future.  Mary is clear – we must train young women to believe they will be the next President of their country.  If we want to change the world we live in, we must be preparing our leaders to take up the highest positions of power and to be clear on the change that needs to happen.  Elizabeth asks only that we listen.  She says that we need to know our movement; we need to create space for women from communities around the world to express their concerns and our leadership must respond accordingly.  Clearly, this listening and responding is what distinguishes a movement from an organisation.

During the afternoon, I meet other YWCA women who form part of the Pilgrim Place sisterhood, including Tinker who spent 30 years in Japan with the YWCA of Sendai and Marilyn from the YWCA USA, as well as other women who have been connected to this great movement at different levels. As we talk about issues of identity, Mary remarks that we are not for everyone, but the YWCA is infectious.  Once you first encounter the YWCA, it is difficult to leave as these women’s stories so aptly highlight.  Elizabeth shares that in her day, being at the YWCA was much more than a job. I don’t tell her that I’ve always known this. We reflect that one of the special qualities of the YWCA is the global sisterhood.

As I am leaving Elizabeth apologises for being so frank.  I tell her that I wouldn’t expect anything less.  She has inspired me to think deeper about how we build a movement that goes beyond paper into real practice; how we can create stronger connections among women and YWCAs around the world, and be a movement whose heartbeat is connected with the dreams and aspirations of women in local communities.  They have all taught me that we cannot afford to rest on our laurels and the great history that these women have shaped, we must mobilise the global sisterhood towards improving the living conditions of people everywhere and seize the power to make this happen.

What does it take to be a wise woman?

The World YWCA history is rooted in faith-driven social action and Christian women committed to service. Exploring the theme of Women Creating a Safe World, Common Concern Issue 145 turns to the strong women in the Bible that have contributed to peace and safety in the world.

Extracted from the December 2010 Common Concern, Issue 145

In the Bible the violent taking of Israel occupies much of early history, from Joshua through to the books of Kings. When the prophet Samuel died, all of Israel gathered to mourn and bury him. During that violent time we meet Abigail, the wife of Nabal, a wealthy man who owns land in the Carmel (1 Samuel 25: 2-13).

Here we have the description of a man and a woman – one is harsh and ungenerous, the other is intelligent and attractive. Along comes David who needs provisions. He turns to Nabal, but Nabal is rude and unresponsive, breaking the code of hospitality that is fundamental to the people of the desert, for he is required by law to give to those who beg from him. By refusing to help him, Nabal provokes David to battle.

David is furious and responds with violence, but Abigail intervenes. (Verses 14-19) She is quick and organised, and knows that she has to undo the insult and shower David with gifts. Abigail meets David before the army reaches her house (Verses 20-31).

Abigail could hold lectures on nonviolence and peacemaking. She follows a pattern and a plan, but is aware that she is taking a chance. Abigail gives David the possibility of being reasonable, she brings gifts, she is humble and she begs to be heard.

Abigail prays for David, blesses him and his future dynasty, and then assumes responsibility for the transgression and offense to hospitality and justice. She reminds David of God’s power and the uselessness of personal vengeance. Abigail is counting on David’s basic goodness, and she tries to teach him mercy and nonviolence, in imitation of God. David, who has won the favour of God responds (Verses 32-35).

David acknowledges that God has sent her to prevent him from violence. Her quick response in going to meet him – an enemy – has turned him into a friend who now grants her a personal favour. Peace, shalom, wholeness, balance, and a bond between people, have all been repaired by her act.

Abigail is a prophet sent by God to bring peace in a time of violence. Instead of force, she uses gifts, words, and herself to resolve conflict. She is a woman of courage and heart, and she shares joy.

When Abigail returns home she tells her husband what she has done. He suffers a stroke and dies ten days later, thereby making God the judge, not David. Thus, David learns how to govern in God’s name and not use his own power for personal vengeance. Abigail has taught him a valuable lesson.

Abigail could become the emblem of all women who find themselves in violent situations but look for peaceful resolutions. She could be remembered by women who seek justice and protection from rape, war and beatings, and counted among those killed, maimed or left as refugees and survivors. Abigail is the model of all those who negotiate and deal in conflict management and nonviolent actions. She is a teacher to all who meet the enemy and look for peaceful solutions, sometimes being humiliated and jeopardising themselves in order to stop others from being harmed, and seeking to end misunderstandings and petty quarrels.

The lesson that Abigail teaches the future king should be learnt anew with each generation, in every nation, and in every heart. Abigail models an alternative that can be practiced, experienced and incorporated into daily life as well as into politics, businesses, schools and parishes. She demonstrates behaviour that is vital to the continued existence of humankind and the daily life of peace among peoples. The earth needs Abigails, lots of them, young and old, female and male, from all nations.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

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