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.