Sunday, July 21, 2013

What's Required? Girl Rising

I had set aside this weekend to host a young friend and her two small children. We were going to visit thrift shops, picnic at a nearby lake, splash in the pool at the Y down the street.

But she called to say she had a new, much needed job. 

So she spent the weekend cleaning hotel rooms, her kids spent the weekend in a relative’s concrete back yard, and I’ve headed off in my kayak.

It hardly seems fair.

But then, much about life is far from fair.

When I was a kid, my grandmother often said, as she sent me off to school: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

I had no clue what she meant.

We lived in a wealthy suburb of New York, where most of my friends had maids or nannies, two cars in the driveway, vacation homes. By seventh grade, or ninth at the latest, most of them would be in private school, at all the best academies.
And I wore hand-me-downs, helped my grandmother drag the shopping cart to Gristedes, a mile away, and tried not to let too many friends know that she watched other people’s kids and did ironing for neighbors to make ends meet.



Yet, the more I see of life, the more I understand what she was saying. I went to great schools. Lived in towns with wonderful libraries. Grew up in a state that made higher education possible for anyone willing to study. Never doubted that I could go to college, even grad school, if I wanted.

I thought of all that as I went with friends this week to watch Girl Rising, a powerful, troubling documentary about nine girls in nine different countries. Each story was written by a writer from the girl’s country, in conversation with the girls themselves, and each was filmed in a way that caught the hopes and struggles of the individual girl . 

Beautiful Suma of Nepal, bonded into labor at six, taught to read by a social worker after long days of work, survived by writing lovely, haunting songs of sorrow. 

Sokha, Cambodian orphan living and working in a city dump, searched for bits of metal to sell, a throw-away child in a throw-away place, until rescued and given home, school, future.

Buoyant Wadley of Haiti: she was seven when the earthquake destroyed her school, and defiant when told only children with money would be able to continue to learn.

Yasmin, of Egypt, tells a police officer the story of a violent attack. She knows where the attacker lives, and could lead the officer to him. Her mother cries for justice, and the officer, though sympathetic, shakes his head sadly: “In this world? No.” That cry for justice, and it's denial, echo in my mind.

Azmira of Ethiopia. Village elders told her widowed mother to marry her off at thirteen, but her older brother intervened, insisting she have the chance to continue in school. Every girl needs a brother like that.

Ruksana lives with her parents and two sisters in a makeshift home on a city street, dreaming of beauty, wondering why some people live in worlds like those she glimpses on tv, while police smash their simple dwelling and leave them homeless in the monsoon rains.

Mariama of Sierre Leone has two mothers, a father, and her own radio show. Joyful, confident, determined Mariama.

The two girls who linger with me are Amina of Afghanistan, and Senna of Peru.

Amina, “a girl masked and muted,” tells a story of servitude and repression. From the age of three she was carrying water to wash men’s hands, scrubbing, serving, working in silence. Sold as bride to her twenty year old cousin when she was just eleven in exchange for money her family spent on a used car for her brother.  Her first son was born nine months later.

Amina was one of two girls whose names were changed, and for safety reasons weren’t able to show their faces, yet her great sorrow, fierce anger and deep determination came through strongly, as did her accusation of all who live in freedom and fail to speak on behalf of those who suffer in silence.

Don’t assume, she says with feeling, that this is a religious issue. Women of her country, of her faith, lived in freedom before, and enjoy freedom in other countries now.

Child marriage and bride prices were banned in Afghanistan in 1921. For decades women were free to go to school, to hold jobs, to move about in freedom. Since 1996, Afghan women have been pawns of patriarchal power, facing violent enforcement of repressive restrictions.

I know almost nothing about the political realities that shape Amina’s life, that hold her in bondage. Does that excuse me?  "Your silence," Amina says, "has already spoken for you."

I find myself trying to see my world through her eyes: small children free to play, teen girls not yet burdened with pregnancy, women able to move and speak in freedom.

And I find myself wondering about that convoluted sentence my grandmother used to say: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

I didn’t know at the time that she was quoting Jesus, speaking in Luke 12:48. She would have known King James version: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required."

What have I been given?

Education, opportunity, freedom, resources. 

Time, money, information.

What’s required? How?

The other story that haunts me is that of Senna, young teen from Peru.
Girl Rising: Life in the World's Harshest Town

Her story is set in La Rinconada, a gold-mining town high in the Andes, reportedly the highest city in the world, a thousand feet higher than the highest peaks of the Alps.

Her town, according to her, has more prostitutes than children. No running water, no sewage.

Her father named her for Xena, Warrior Princess, although he couldn’t spell the name. He never went to school, but wanted her to learn all she could. After he was injured in a mining accident, her mother and sister went to work cracking mining waste, looking for small remnants of ore, while Senna convinced the owner of the public outhouse to pay her for coming early every morning to clean the stinking holes, so she could work, avoid the lure of prostitution, and still remain in school.

As she lost her father to depression, then death, Senna discovered poetry and began to write her own.

Watching her, her determination, her struggle, I found myself wondering, as I wonder often: Why was I born here, in a beautiful place, with good health care nearby, excellent schools, clean bathrooms, green lawns?

I sit in my air-conditioned house, watch the hummingbirds visit my honeysuckle vine, wonder why I have the right to vote, to work, to drive, to read. To wear what I want, go where I want. 

I have the world at my fingertips – literally. FIOS internet connection. Functional HP laptop.

I find myself wondering, as I review the  movie, rethink the girls' stories: what are you asking?, the organization that created the film in partnership with CNN and Intel, has started a fund for girls’ education. Donations to the fund are distributed between seven other partner organizations, including CARE USA, World Vision, Partners in Health, Room to Read.

It costs sixty dollars a year for school fees and uniforms in many places.

A year of teacher's college can cost less than a thousand dollars. 

So yes, money is required.

But more than that.

Carrying those nine girls’ voices with me, I find myself humbled, thankful, hopeful, sad.

I want justice for each of them. In this world. Soon.

And I want choices, and beauty, and safety, and love.

Schools. Teachers. Books. Pens.

How much would we need to give to make that possible?

This is the last in a series on women and girls: 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Talitha Koun. Girl Rising

There’s a movie I’ve been wanting to see, Girl Rising. It will be showing this week, on Wednesday, at the Phoenixville Colonial Theater. If you’re in the area, come see it.  

"One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world."
It’s about nine girls from nine countries who face the challenges too many girls face: child marriage, sex trafficking, slavery, abandonment, staggering poverty.

This past Friday, the UN celebrated the 16th birthday of Malala Yousafza, the teen shot in Pakistan last October for daring to speak out against the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education. Malala spoke to the gathered world leaders “as one girl among many”:  
"I speak not for myself but for those without voice ... those who have fought for their rights -- their right to live in peace, their right to be treated with dignity, their right to equality of opportunity, their right to be educated."

"In many parts of the world, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, terrorism, war and conflict stop children to go to their schools. We are really tired of these wars. Women and children are suffering”  
In Malala’s home nation, only one in three women can read a newspaper or write a letter.  

And one in four girls is married before turning 18.   

According to a 2012 study by World Vision, the number of child brides continues to rise:  
“One in nine girls around the world is forced to marry before her 15th birthday.
“Those who are subjected to early marriage are more likely to experience domestic violence, forced sexual relations, poor reproductive health, and lower levels of education, according to the report.
“Early marriage poses a serious challenge to extremely hard-won development gains in least developed countries . . .And yet, in the face of these facts and the widespread condemnation of the practice, early marriage continues to flourish.”
I’ve been reading in the Gospel of Mark, and a passage from Mark 5 has been troubling me. Jesus, traveling to heal the daughter of a church leader, encounters a woman “who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years." After spending all she had on a series of doctors, “instead of growing better she grew worse.”

The woman reaches out in the crowd to touch Jesus’ cloak – a forbidden act. Woman touching man; unclean, untouchable person reaching out to share her uncleanness. Jesus stops, wants to know who has touched him (you can read the whole story here). She falls at his feet, “trembling with fear,” and explains her humiliating story. His response is gentle, affirming, and deeply compassionate: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

The story continues with Jesus’ arrival at his original destination, but the girl he’s come to see is dead. 

No matter. 
“He took her by the hand and said to her ‘Talitha koun!' (which means, 'Little girl, I say to you, get up!')"
Set aside discussion about whether miracles happen. Mark’s description is matter of fact, and as precise as he can get it. No respected religious leader of the time would call a woman breaking the rules “daughter.” No ordinary man could see the depth of the woman’s misery and meet her there, so gently offering freedom from that suffering.

And that little Aramaic sentence Mark gives us: apparently he thought the heart of it would be lost if he translated it into the Greek of his text. “Talitha koun”: sweet little lamb, dear little girl, treasured little ewe child, hear my heart and rise.

As I’ve been trying to understand more about the suffering of women around the globe, I’ve carried those words with me: daughter, be freed from your suffering. Sweet treasured girl, rise up.

Several years ago Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof, authors of  Half the Sky, tried to quantify the misery of women: 
“More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.
"The equivalent of 5 jumbo jets worth of women die in labor each day... life time risk of maternal death is 1,000x higher in a poor country than in the west. That should be an international scandal.” 
 And this: 
“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”  
In a chapter entitled “Family Planning and the ‘God Gulf’” WuDunn and Kristof discussed the deep divide over funding for abortion, contraception, condoms, even sex education.
“One of the great scandals of the early twenty-first century is that 122 million women around the world want contraception and can't get it." 
That number, according to the UNFPA (the UN Population Fund) is now close to 222 million, but funding for the UNFPA and for clinics that offer contraception and prenatal care has become a political football, with groups opposed to abortion insisting on cuts to UNFPA funding, even though the organization “does not support or promote abortion as a method of family planning.” 

Numbers can’t convey the story, but sit with these statistics a day or two:    
  • About 16 million adolescent girls give birth every year – most in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Worldwide, one in five girls has given birth by the age of 18. In the poorest regions of the world, this figure rises to over one in three girls.
  • In low- and middle-income countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among girls under twenty: more than 70,000 each year.
  • An estimated three million girls under twenty undergo unsafe abortions every year.
  • Globally, only 50% of women received the minimum recommended prenatal care – just four visits with a skilled caregiver. 20% receive no care at all.
  • One third of all women have no skilled help during labor and delivery.
  • More than 2 million young women live with debilitating, untreated obstetric fistula -   caused by teen pregnancy and inadequate obstetric care.
Numbers, I know, but each number represents a little constellation of suffering, a story of powerlessness, fear, physical and mental pain. 

I’ve read much of what groups like Concerned Women of America have to say against the UNFPA, and I’ve spent time reading the Fund’s materials on abortion, family planning, training of midwives, International Guidelines on Sexuality Education.

As I read, I find myself thinking about the Pharisees, and their outrage over perceived violations of the law. 

And I think of Jesus, and his compassion for the suffering women of Mark 5. 

Maybe it’s time to get past the arguments about gender equality and family planning, and focus on girls, and the women they’ll become: women trapped in a cycle of powerlessness and poverty, or women who know they have value, who dare to learn, and dream. 

As I said, I’ll be watching Girl Rising on Wednesday. Join me if you’re in the area.

And be thinking about how to join Jesus in saying  “Daughter, be free from your suffering.” 

Little girl, rise up.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Freedom is Indivisible

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal...”

Reading through the Declaration of Sentiments, signed in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, by 68 women and 32 men, I find myself wondering why I never encountered that document in any history class, or heard it mentioned, even once, in connection to its obvious model, the Declaration of Independence.

Or why I never heard, until very recently, of the Justice Bell, funded a century ago by Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger here in Chester County as a way to call attention to the battle for women's suffrage. She commissioned a duplicate of the Liberty Bell, with an inscription of "Establish Justice", and arranged for a three month tour around Pennsylvania in the summer of 1915..

I find myself wondering how the men of Philadelphia, living in the shadow of Independence Hall, challenged by the sight of that Justice Bell, could vote, by overwhelming majority, against the 1915 Pennsylvania Referendum on Women’s Suffrage.

And I marvel at those who, looking back, find suffragettes amusing, or wish, even now, that women would “know their place”.

Last week I posted an article "what do teenage girls need.” The weeks before I wrote about time spent with women who have encouraged and challenged me, or spurred me on in important ways.

Girl in well - Water Mission International
But in the back of my mind is a knowledge of other women, other girls: girls who will never learn to read. Women who will never enjoy a weekend away with friends. Millions who live on less than a dollar a day, who walk miles in search of water, who spend their days in fear of violence, disease,
starvation. What do those girls need? Who encourages those women to be all they were made to be?

For a century and a half, the men who fought for their own right to vote, the men who enjoyed that right and the attendant rights of employment, property, assembly, self-direction, gave little thought to the women around them who had no opportunity to share in those rights.I object, even now, to their blindness. And to the blindness of any group that will fight or advocate for rights for themselves they refuse to grant to others.

But what of my own blindness?

Nelson Mandela, hero of the South African anti-apartheid movement, wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom
“Freedom is indivisible . . .  To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” 
Freedom is indivisible. As Mandela explained, 
“the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me.” 
But carry this a step further, as Martin Luther King did in his letter from Birmingham jail:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 
Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, called violence against women, "perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development, and peace.” 

Gender-based violence stems from the failure of governments and societies to recognize the human rights of women. It is rooted in a global culture of discrimination which denies women equal rights with men and which legitimizes the appropriation of women's bodies for individual gratification or political ends. Everyday, all over the world, women face gender-specific persecution including genital mutilation, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and domestic violence. At least one out of every three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.
Violence against women feeds off discrimination and serves to reinforce it. When women are abused in custody, raped by armed forces as "spoils of war," or terrorized by violence in the home, unequal power relations between men and women are both manifested and enforced.  
What a staggering statistic - according to many observers, a conservative estimate: At least one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused. 30 percent have experienced physical violence or sexual abuse by a partner. And more than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime.

The tragic pattern of violence against women is part of a larger story of dependence and poverty that deprives women of freedom and limits healthy choices:

Of all the primary-school age girls globally, 20 percent are not in school.

One in every six adults still cannot read or write; two thirds of those are women.

End Child Marriage
One in seven girls in the developing world is married before turning 15; in low and middle-income countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19.

Of the 1.5 billion people worldwide who live on less than 1 dollar a day, 70 percent are female.

Women are 80% of all refugees and displaced persons.

Women and children constitute 80% of trafficking victims globally. 98% of those trafficked for sexual purposes are female.

The list could go on: low wages, lack of representation in governing bodies, inequitable property rights and inheritance laws.

So much of what I take for granted is unavailable, even unimaginable, to millions of women around the world.

So what can I do about any of this?

Why even think about it?

Friends tell me I think too much. Which may be true.

But if freedom is indivisible, if it’s true that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere, if I'm called to love my neighbor as myself, even the neighbor I can’t see, can’t hear – what then?

I know lots of people who choose to sponsor a child through an organization like World Vision  or Compassion. $35 or $38 dollars a month, and one child will receive school fees and supplies, clothes, minimal health care, supplemental food. So sponsor a girl and make a difference. Done! 

But some might say that model is cumbersome and expensive, designed more to massage the conscience of the donor than provide real change where change is needed. According to Sri Lankan Vinoth Ramachandra,  
“It has little to do with real costs on the ground. It’s also a very expensive process to manage, which means a large fraction of the money raised is swallowed up in the bureaucracy of the organization.” 
Some large international ministries are turning attention to education and training for women and girls. World Vison now invites gift donations for girls and women. Tearfund  and Oxfam don’t promote targeted donations, but are actively involved in empowering and educating women and working toward the welfare and rights of women and girls.

Class in India, Compassion Beyond Borders
I’m intrigued by the model of Compassion Beyond Borders, a small organization with very low overhead. The board raises its own administrative costs  and works with grass-roots organizations to educate girls in regions where few girls go to school, including parts of Guatemala, Mexico, Uganda, Kenya, and India.

So, yes, there are ways to directly impact and help educate and encourage women and girls.

But beyond that: is it possible to advocate for change in places where change is needed?

There are organizations at work in human trafficking: International Justice Mission works around the world to find and rescue women held against their will, and to strengthen legal supports for women’s rights.

But on a larger level?

Maybe a start is to look around.

To give thanks for the freedoms I enjoy, to give thanks for the women and men who believed women were created equal and were willing to advocate for women’s rights.

And to become more informed about those who are still living under the weight of oppressive inequality, and more informed about avenues to speak on their behalf.

The prophet Isaiah challenged God's people:
Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.
                (Isaiah 1:17)

I don’t know how to do any of that, but as Isaiah said, I can “learn to do right.” I welcome your insights, assistance, and friendship along the way.