Unsung heroines, untold stories

Has it really only been a week since we started attending the official UNCSW events? At times the early-morning-to-late-evening cycle of each day means that you lose track of time entirely.

I’m conscious of not having blogged as much as I would have liked. In part that’s about pressures of time … and I look forward to catching up a bit as things start to wind down slightly towards the end of this week.

But in part, it’s  because again and again the best stories simply can’t be told. Sometimes they’re too personal. Sometimes a woman will be expressing freely here things that she couldn’t express so freely at home … and one can’t risk having someone from home reading her thoughts online. Sometimes to write about people would be to place them in grave danger: indeed, for some sessions, you don’t even find out the names of the participants until you arrive.

So this blogpost is for the unsung heroines whose stories remain untold. They are wonderful stories – stories of using personal experiences of abuse and violence to shape the way organisations offer assistance to survivors … of supporting human rights work in the midst of conflict zones … of taking on powerful vested interests to defend marginalised men’s and women’s rights.

They are the stories of women who have given up privilege to work with the most threatened people … who have themselves been threatened with death … who have lost beloved colleagues because of the work for justice in which they share.

Perhaps as you say your prayers, you can include these women – not knowing their names,  but bringing them before the God who knows all our names and stories.

And be encouraged. Even in places where we may discern few signs of hope from the media coverage, brave people are doing some excellent work.

“Stuff gets real”

There can be a lot of rhetoric around large meetings … but there are also moments when real stories and hard data bring home the nature of the challenges – and the possibilities for overcoming them – in such a direct way that people are galvanised.

One such moment occurred last Sunday (yes, I am just catching up!) when Ruchira Gupta spoke at Small Ruchira Guptathe opening briefing for NGOs. Ruchira Gupta is a journalist, activist, and Founder/President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide – a grassroots organisation that works to end sex trafficking by increasing choices for at-risk girls and women.

Gupta told us how her transition from journalist to activist began when she was working in Nepalese villages and realised that many villages had almost no women or girls between 15 and 45. When she asked where the women were, she was told that they had all gone to Mumbai.

Her quest to find out what had happened to these missing women led her to discover a chain of trafficking and exploitation and to follow it – to the borders where the women and girls were allowed through illegally, to “lodges” where women and girls were beaten and starved into submission, to the big cities, where pimps negotiated to buy them – “the younger the better”, to the brothels where brothel keepers and managers locked them away and sold them to multiple customers every night … to the streets, where broken women were left to  “[die] a very difficult death because they were no longer commercially viable.”

Gupta was driven to tell the women’s stories – and she made a film, “The Selling of Innocents.” It was a life-changing experience, she said, and not without its dangers. She spent a lot of time in the brothels interviewing the women. “At one point … somebody pulled out a knife on me inside the brothels and said ‘I’m going to kill you because I don’t want you to be telling this story.’ And I was saved by the twenty-two women in prostitution who wanted to tell their story. They surrounded me. They formed a circle, and they said ‘We wanted to tell our story, and if you want to kill her, kill us first.’ And the man slunk away because he knew it would be too much trouble to kill twenty-three women.”

“The Selling of Innocents” won an Emmy Award – but it marked the point at which Gupta left journalism, wanting to do something more direct to assist women in such situations. She became a consultant with the UN. But more significantly, she went back to the brothels, to show the women the documentary and share the Emmy Award. There, she said, the women challenged her: “But you can’t walk away. You have to do something” and reminded her of the assets she brought in terms of education and networks. “Remember that you all saved me and rescued me,” she responded, “so we can rescue each other.”

Together the twenty-two women and Gupta founded Apne Aap, which means self-empowerment. The women had four dreams:

  • education … a school for their children. “They said ‘Whatever has happened, has happened, but we want a different future for our daughters.'”
  • a job in an office … “where we can be at peace.”
  • a room of their own … “where nobody will kick us, beat us, nobody can walk in when they want to, our children can play peacefully on the floor, we can sleep when we like and wake up when we like”
  • justice … which meant “protection …When they were pulled out of school … there was nobody to watch over them … because they were poor, they were female, they were low-caste … . They were disposable people, and I call them the last girls” and “accountability. They wanted those who had broken away their dreams … to be punished.”

So Apne Aap rented a room, hired a teacher, and began preparing the children for school. Then they enrolled the children in schools – and when schools objected, the women organised as a group with Apne Aap and went to negotiate with the school leaders. Later the women got government IDs, becoming citizens with rights and benefits – and gradually they found a voice and discovered their collective strength. In time, thanks in part to their campaigning, “the process of trafficking was criminalised for the purposes of sexual exploitation and prostitution in the Indian law – now it is section 370 of the Indian penal code.”

Gupta’s story didn’t simply end on that high note: she had strong words for UN Women, which she felt was undermining anti-trafficking work by issuing a report that recommended the decriminalising of pimping and brothel-keeping, on the grounds that many women chose sex work. “And we wrote [to them] to say yes, there could be multiple positions, but UN Women should take neutrality as a stand, and there were hundred and thousands of women and girls for whom it was not a choice but an absence of choice, and the terminology ‘sex work’ actually sterilised the exploitation in their lives.”

She also spoke of the risk of seeking quick development wins to meet targets: “When we talk about the bottom 1/3rd very often in development paradigms and development agendas, what we have found is that we are stuck with getting easy numbers quickly, big numbers fast, and … because of that we often end up skimming the top of the bottom, and we ignore the last. But unless we include the last, we will never be able to bring about the paradigm change that we are looking for … We can only walk the last mile if we stand by the last girl.”

The description of the sufferings of trafficked women was the strongest possible challenge – a true call to action. The challenge to the ways UN institutions and development specialists operate  was also real – and a reminder of how important it is for those formulating policy to hear the voices of those who are experiencing its impacts.

But this wasn’t just about challenge – it was also about inspiration. Inspiration from women who had been so badly abused and yet were able to rediscover their own power and potential. Inspiration from the way that, with solidarity from others, they have been able to create better lives for themselves, their children, and other women in their region. Inspiration from the way in which work together can shift attitudes and norms that might seem intractable. Real stories. Challenge. And inspiration. It was a good way to begin our journey …

Making Connections (1)

The first two days of pre-meetings for the UNCSW have been about making connections – within the Anglican delegation, with delegates from other churches, and with the wider NGO community.

Small Alice on panelOur delegation is now complete, and what a marvelously diverse group we are – lay and clergy, old and young from all around the world. Our delegates have taken an active role in the pre-meetings:  Canon Alice Medcof from Canada (pictured second from right) fascinated people at the Ecumenical Women’s orientation day with her stories of being at Beijing in 1995, and Emily Aldritt from Scotland yesterday asked a really helpful question at the NGO briefing about the ways in which we listen to young people (of whom she is one). In a few days time, we’ll be getting a presentation from Reem Fouad Najeeb El Far on the Diocese of Jerusalem, and Constance Mogina, from Papua New Guinea, will be part of a panel on sexual and gender-based violence.

And meanwhile we share stories amongst ourselves – about encouraging New Zealand women to do theological writing, helping orphans and vulnerable girls in Swaziland, coping with the aftermath of the floods in Malawi.

Talking with Margaret about the floods in Malawi was a sobering reminder of the way in which extreme weather events affect the poorest. She spoke of fields flooded and crops lost, of homes washed away.

Such extreme weather events are forecast to become ever more likely with climate change, which is why it was so helpful yesterday to hear Mary Robinson, formerly President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, address the NGO CSW Consultation Day. One of the things that had struck me looking over the list of official events was how little, relatively speaking, there was on climate change, despite the fact that “Women and the Environment” is one of the Beijing Platform’s 12 key areas.

Small Mary RobinsonRobinson spoke eloquently of the importance of climate justice for women and men around the world – and the need to make connections between climate justice, sustainable development, and human rights. She said:

I became the UNHCR in 1997 and I served until 2002, and I never made a major speech on climate change. It was something different, something that they were dealing with in a process under the environment.

But when I went to work in African countries on right to health; women, peace and security; and corporate responsibility issues, every country I went to, people said to me “Things are so much worse.” And it was about the rainy seasons weren’t coming in Liberia; in Uganda there had been predictable seasons to know when to sow and when to harvest and now there were long periods of drought and flash flooding; in the Horn of Africa it was much more about drought … all over Africa, in Tanzania, everywhere, I was hearing this. And I realised how bad it was already for the more vulnerable countries, and I read the science.

We are running out of time. We are running out of time, and that’s going to affect our children, our grandchildren, your children and grandchildren and their children. There’s an intergenerational injustice, and the injustice really affects those least responsible, those who don’t drive cars, use central heating and all that, …  this human-induced negative impact on climate is affecting the very poorest.So they have to be the ones who have the access to clean energy, who have the access to the way forward in our world of production.

So I hope that Beijing +20, including here at the Commission on the Status of Women the Declaration of Beijing +20, will incorporate a significant reference to the effect of climate change, to link in with the Sustainable Development Goals and the climate agreement which we have to have in Paris in December. So coming here and being involved with women pursuing an agenda with much more support of men now … we have to link all of these, because 2015 is probably one of the most important years for development and humanity certainly for the last 20 years … we won’t get another year like this for an indefinite time, so we’ve got to make the most of it.

Can we make the connections and rise to the challenge?

Beginning afresh … prayer points

This year, 2015, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) takes place from the 9th – 20th March at the headquarters of the UN in New York. The UNCSW takes place each year, reviewing governments’ progress on implementing the Beijing Platform for Action which outlines women’s rights globally. The priority theme for 2015 is a review of progress and remaining challenges for implementing the Beijing Platform for Action.

While the Commission itself is an intergovernmental process, the meeting is well attended by representatives from NGOs as well – indeed UNCSW is the largest commission meeting that the UN holds. As such, it offers an excellent opportunity for civil society organisations from around the world to come together, share experiences and learn from one another.

As the representative from the Church of England, I’m part of a twenty-strong delegation from the Anglican Communion around the world – we include women from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Malawi, Myanmar, Scotland, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, and the United States. Supported by the Anglican Communion Office at the UN and the Reverend Terry Robinson, the Anglican Communion’s Director of Women in Church and Society, we’ll be sharing our joys, concerns and experiences and, in concert with other church representatives, bringing Christian faith perspectives into the midst of the CSW.

I’ll also been linking with other UK civil society organisations, some faith-based and some not: some are colleagues with whom I work in a variety of contexts, others people I’ve met through the UK NGO CSW coalition, which does a phenomenal job of bringing us all together beforehand and at the meeting. I’m hugely grateful for their briefings, full of wisdom imparted by those who have much experience of CSWs past. I’ll also be attending the UK government meetings at the UK Mission, and some of the UK (and other governments’ and NGOs’) events on particular issues.

An event like this is complex, full of many opportunities and challenges. I would greatly appreciate prayer for the following:

  • For good relationships to be established among the Anglican delegation, so that we may offer each other learning, encouragement and mutual support and build the foundations for future work together as appropriate
  • For wisdom in listening well to those with different perspectives and in bringing a Christian perspective to discussions. Pray that all of us who are here as Christians may listen, speak and act in ways that reflect our faith in God’s truth, love and grace.
  • That those who are negotiating the Political Declaration and the Working Methods for CSW may be guided in ways that are good and true, and that the documents that emerge may be a blessing to women and men around the world.
  • For some practicalities – wisdom to know which, among the plethora of fascinating sessions, to attend, good health … and rest despite the packed schedule (we were told to pack snack bars, as there are days where you go from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm without a break!)

You can follow progress via social media in the following ways:
Twitter: @UNCSWCofE
Blog: cofeuncsw.wordpress.com
Email: CofEUNCSW@gmail.com

Mandy Marshall, my predecessor and mentor (to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude, both for setting up all the social media and for imparting her wisdom more generally) said as she concluded the post that was the inspiration for this one: “If you have any words, pictures, visions, prophecy, encouragement, thoughts whilst praying then please do email me them.” I’d echo her words … and look forward to being in touch.

Thank you so much for your prayers – and I look forward to our sharing the journey together.

Maranda St John Nicolle

Two months on…

How time flies. It’s now two months since the end of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, so what’s happened since?

On returning there has been a flurry of feeding back highlights, key points to consider, consultations with the C of E head office. This is alongside blogging for Restored and doing my normal job. Noting that I need to lead by example, I have met with my MP, Dr Vince Cable, asking him to find out how the UK government plans to take forward the agreed conclusions. I have to admit Dr Cable was humble and said “We’ll do the homework you’ve set us and get back to you”. It took me a month to get the meeting with him  but I am hoping to hear back from him sooner. I have also been using to meet with my own vicar at St Stephen’s Church in Twickenham. That’s been harder than getting an appointment to see my MP due to clashing diaries. I will hopefully meet him in June to discuss what we as a church can do.

I have also done a media interview with Maria Rodrigues Toth on her Woman to Woman show due to go out tomorrow, Friday, at 11am. This was a great opportunity to highlight the issues and also what the church can do. Noting the work of Restored and the free resources available on the website http://www.restorederelationships.org.

I have presented initial findings and recommendations to the Mission and Public Affairs Council in the C of E. I still need to write a formal report for their consideration. The MPA meeting provided a good discussion, not only on what the church is doing locally, but also what can  be done in the future. I will also be conducting a side event at the General Synod in York in July on the issue.

There is still much to do. This week alone we have seen men convicted of raping young women in Oxford. Today there are newspaper reports of a premiership footballer being accused of rape. There is still much work to be done. You would no doubt expect me to do something but I can’t do this alone. I am one voice in the crowd. It can get lost in the noise of society. It needs us all to speak up and speak out if we are to make a sustained change in our culture and society until violence against women has been eradicated.

What will you do?

What do the agreed conclusions mean for us?

Agreed Conclusions

Finally on Wednesday, just as I was about to leave wifi for a few days, the agreed conclusions were put up online by the UN CSW. But what do they mean for us and why are they important? Here’s a brief overview of what we need to take note of and, as you would expect, take action.

1. Firstly the agreed conclusions are not legally binding. Governments are tetchy about signing things at the UN that force them to do things. Indeed there was an ongoing battle at this CSW to ensure the removal of the term ‘sovereignty’ from the text which would mean that countries didn’t really have to implement the conclusions.  This was strongly opposed, after all, if you agree by consensus why would you want a get out clause?  The agreed conclusions do place a strong imperative on governments to implement the agreement, alongside the need to report back next year on actions taken to do just this.

2. The agreed conclusions give NGO’s and churches an opportunity to lobby their respective governments to put into action what they have signed up to do. It’s a great opportunity to see more action, funding, resources, political effort and will to end violence against women. NGO’s and churches can ask governments to indicate how they are implementing the required actions, and if not, to justify why certain things have not happened. I will be asking my MP, Dr Vince Cable, how the government will be implementing the conclusions. Will you do the same?

3. ‘Violence against women and girls is characterised by the use and abuse of power and control in public and private spheres, and is intrinsically linked to gender stereotypes…’ (point 10). This acknowledges what we know in that violence takes place in the home ( private sphere) and IS our business. It is not ‘just a domestic’, nor ‘none of my business’. Gone are the days when we think that what happens behind closed doors is nothing to do with us. It is our business. It is our church. We need to speak out. At a hard-nosed economic end it costs the British public billions of pounds a year to deal with domestic abuse. It costs us all economically, socially, spiritually and in many lost work hours.

4. Gender stereotypes are a cause and consequence of violence against women. Is it time to re-look and examine ourselves to see if we are perpetuating stereotypes of men and women? Do we make subtle remarks? Or obvious ones? Don McPherson challenged us all in the engaging men and boys workshop to not use phrases like ‘Throws like a girl’. He said this did two things; it created unhealthy competition between his son and daughter; and undermined the value of his daughter. Do we still make comments such as ‘woman driver’, ‘must be the time of the month’, ‘don’t be such a girl!’?  Time to change the rhetoric.

5. In these agreed conclusions we see a reference to religious institutions. This is something I was lobbying for as part of the Church of England’s key messages. The Commission strongly condemned ‘invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations’. This means we cannot justify violence against women and girls through our theology, scriptures and cultural practices. It means that we as a church, need to examine ourselves and see if anything we are doing directly or indirectly leads to violence against women. If we did this it could have wide reaching implications on the way we are as church, what we preach and teach to ensure that there is no misunderstanding nor misinterpretation of scripture that could lead to justifying violence. None of us would deliberately (mis)use scripture to coerce and manipulate right? I wish I could sit here and say a resounding yes to that. But I have listened to enough stories of Christian women both in the UK and overseas, that tell a different story. ‘I expect my wife to bow down before me as I bow down before Christ’ are the words of a rural Zimbabwean Pastor that will ring in my ears for years to come. Yes some of it is theological education and understanding the hermeneutics and exegesis of the Bible. Alongside this we have to remember and recall that the church is full of recovering sinners, addicted to sin. We are all at different points in our journey of faith, but we cannot allow abuse to happen along that journey. We need to challenge the abuse happening in our churches.

6. Under x its states ‘Prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against women and girls that are perpetrated by people in positions of authority, such as teachers, religious leaders,…’ Here the governments are specifically asked not to give any special ‘get out of jail free cards’ to our vicars, curates, Bishops and Archbishops. When we see violence happen we need to take action, no matter how hard it may seem. There is a victim on the other end who needs our support, care and compassion. We need to be more victim and survivor centered in our approach and response to violence against women to avoid any collusion with a perpetrator of abuse.

7.  Part B headlines ‘Addressing structural and underlying causes and risk factors so as to prevent violence against women and girls’ (VAWG). In here we see a host of action and reaffirmation of action to prevent VAWG including addressing ‘unequal power relations between men and women‘. This will no doubt ring alarm bells for some. The Church of England will need to look at this and see how it wants to take this forward. As we have seen at Synod, there are strong views on both sides about women bishops debate. Does this constitute a violence against women denying them a right to progress in their calling? Some would argue strongly that it does, others that this is not a violence but staying tune to Biblical teaching. One thing is for sure, we need to be aware of how unequal power relations can lead to violence and make steps to ensure that violence does not result from the decisions we make.

8. ‘Engage, educate, encourage and support men and boys to take responsibility for their behaviour‘ A focus of this CSW was women and men working together to end violence against women. Men talking to men, calling out violence, challenging themselves and their dominate cultural masculinities. So in our churches, Men’s breakfasts, Men’s work groups how are we going to open up the space to actively talk about masculinities (note plural) and it’s impact on our relationships at home, work, church etc.

9. ‘Recognise the role the media can play in eliminating gender stereotypes….and refraining from presenting them as inferior beings and exploiting them as sexual objects’. When I see this my mind goes straight to Page 3. How in 2013 do we still have a national newspaper legally allowed to objectify women on a daily basis in a paper that children are allowed to purchase? It does make me really angry that this is defended under the guise of free press. Will we join in the campaign to end page 3 or we will continue to be complicit in this objectification by our silence? I will continue to speak out on this one.

10. Point mm relates specifically to addressing and changing ‘attitudes, behaviours and practices that condone gender stereotypes … and violence against women and girls‘. This recognises the role that religious leaders can play in changing attitudes and behaviours. Getting religious leaders including in here is a victory as it acknowledges the positive role the church can, does and is playing in the UK and internationally in the Anglican Communion to bring violence to and end. Whether it is doing the simple thing of putting posters in the women’s toilets to access help, or going further and teaching and training on how to become a safe church, there is much we can share within the church on ending violence against women.  The church is about positive change, about transformation, about new life, about freedom. Freedom for the survivor of violence and freedom for the perpetrator in being bound by believing abuse of power is better than love and grace. After all the church welcomes all, but don’t expect to leave the same.

You can read the full agreed conclusions here. They are not simply for governments to implement but for us too. After all we create our culture and our environment together. We can contribute to keeping it the same or challenge and change it. What do you want to do?