Gender Equality

On this fourth Sunday in Lent we continue to hear stories from Dr Julianne Stewart about the work that the Anglican Board of Mission (ABM) is doing towards achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This week, the material has been written around Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. There are two targets associated with this goal:

Target 5.2 is to ‘Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.’

Target 5.3 is to, ‘Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation’

Dr Stewart writes:

On a flood plain in a little village in Zambia’s remote Western Province, where sandy tracks and seasonal rains limit access to four wheel drive vehicles and bullock drays, lives a community which has had an epiphany. Their traditional views of women are changing because of training received as part of the Zambia Anglican Council’s Gender and Governance program. On this particular day they are giving testimonies to me, a visitor from the funding organisation in faraway Australia.

The first to speak is Amooyate, the village headman:

“I want to talk about my life with my wife prior to this training. Previously I thought women were not important. In fact, I used to beat my wife, and my children did not go to school. When this group started going in our village, some of us thought at first we might go to jail.

The group emphasised the importance of change. My wife started talking to me. I knew that unless I changed she would not stay. I am proud of myself because I listened to my wife. I made improvements to my house, putting iron sheets on the roof. Even those doubting Thomases are now saying they should follow my example. This program should continue so that others may change too.”

Amooyate is soon joined by Grace, one of ten women and men in the community who have received training as Gender-based Violence counsellors:

“The main thing I have learnt is that we counsellors are prophets of peace in the household. We are discouraging all the bad behaviour. A few days ago a pregnant girl child was about to be married, with a fee being paid to the girl’s parents by the new husband, who was also just a school boy. I went to the village and advised the parents not to marry her off, but to let her stay at school. I convinced them that the value of the child to the family would increase if she stayed at school. They resolved it by asking the girl’s uncle, who lives in the Copperbelt (in Zambia’s north), to come and take her to live with him and his wife, so the girl could go to school there.”

Zambia has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 31% of women married by the time they turn 18, and 6% by the time they have turned 15. The legal age for marriage is 21, but in rural areas traditional beliefs are stronger than the law.

Child marriage usually means an end to a girl’s education and her hopes for a better life. It can impact on her health, and many child brides are victims of domestic violence. Child marriage is often a result of poverty, as it relieves parents of daughters from the financial burden of feeding and educating them into young adulthood. It often has strong cultural support, with traditional village elders encouraging girls to marry early to ensure their “destiny” as a mother of many children is fulfilled.

The program that Amooyate and Grace are part of also works with schools to encourage girls who do become pregnant to stay at school, and bring their babies with them. This requires the active and willing leadership of the school principal, teachers, the local community nurse, families, and, importantly, the traditional elders.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. (Ps 107:19-20)

For girls and young women in Zambia, the work of the Zambia Anglican Council can be an answer to prayer. Increased gender equality also benefits men and boys. In one community where this Gender and Governance program was operating, the people had started to ask themselves questions about the way things were always done. They started asking questions about women; Why are girls encouraged to marry early? How can domestic disputes be solved without violence? However this led to broader questions; Why are young primary school aged boys taken out of school to care for the family cattle, when there are plenty of unemployed young men who could do the job? This community was able to turn things around very quickly for the little boys as well as addressing the age-old practices that were harming women and girls.

In one dramatic performance prepared by a group of young men and women, and performed in front of the whole community, the benefits to the whole family of women’s empowerment were made clear: participating more equally in farm work gave men a purpose and took them away from sloth and drunkenness. Women flourished in a more balanced life, and children started to see their parents as equally hard working and deserving of respect. Families had money to fund education and to enjoy some of the good things of life.

Gender equality and sustainable development reinforce each other in powerful ways. When women have power to make decisions they tend to take into account the broader issues that affect families and have a longer-term view. When women farmers in Kenya were given training and seedlings to improve crop production, they used the income earned to send their children to school.

As I listen to Dr Stewart’s story, I find that I become quite disturbed at the injustice in the treatment of girls and women in countries such as Zambia. But it is not just a ‘Third World’ problem. let us take a moment to think about our own society.

In Australia, gender inequality continues to be a major barrier to the realisation of rights and access to opportunities for girls and women. The unequal status of women and girls in Australia results from entrenched structural and systemic gendered inequalities, together with societal attitudes and traditions around gender roles and applications of power. For example, recent media reports have highlighted concern over the issue of inequality for working women in financial and superannuation benefits. Women, who on average live five years longer than men, currently retire with 47% less superannuation than men.

Recent statistics indicate that 40% of older single retired women live in poverty and experience economic insecurity in retirement. And women over 55 are the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia.

Young women too, are becoming increasingly represented among people experiencing homelessness, primarily due to domestic violence of some form. The prevalence and severity of violence against women is indicated by facts such as: 1 in 3 Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15; 1 in 5 Australian women has experienced sexual violence; and 1 in 4 Australian women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner.

Just as we heard about the wider impact of the gender inequality on the men and boys in Zambia, so in Australia there are wider impacts arising from gender inequality. This includes the profound and long-term toll on women and children’s health and well-being, on families and communities, and on society as a whole. There are also increasing financial costs: for example, the combined health, administration and social welfare costs of violence against women have been estimated to be $21.7 billion a year and is growing rapidly. And of course, violence against women is a fundamental violation of human rights, and one that Australia has an obligation to prevent under international law.

But, it is not only for human rights, economic or legal reasons that you and I should speak up against gender inequality. As disciples of Christ, we are expected to follow Jesus’ example on how to treat others, including women. Jesus demonstrated concern and compassion for women which was quite radical for his time. In Christ we are all valued equally and as we claim in our Parish purpose statement, ‘We believe that everyone is a person known and loved by God; and should be supported to know their intrinsic value, and to become the best that God intends for them.’

Sadly though, I think that much of the gender inequality in Western society has been supported by how we have interpreted the bible. Literal readings of the Old Testament with its accounts of the Patriarchal Hebrew society, and taking verses of the bible out of context have contributed to the belief that men are created to be superior to women, are to have authority over women and may treat women as possessions.

In addition to Old testament scriptures, we might think of verses such a 1 Corinthians 11:3-10, where Paul says that, ‘the husband is the head of his wife …’ and that women must cover their heads as a symbol of the authority of man over them, if they are going to pray or prophesy while in church; and in 1 Cor 14:34-35, he goes further, saying that ‘women should be silent in the churches’ that they are ‘… not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate …’ according to the law.

And then there are the verses in Ephesians 5:22-24 which say, ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands … for the husband is the head of the wife’ and that ‘… wives ought to be, subject in everything, to their husbands’. I remember a man using these verses to justify beating his wife with a broom handle. Of course, such men ignore verse 25 which says, ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …’; in other words, a sacrificial love that bestows blessings upon the beloved.

As we read the verses from 1 Corinthians, we must remember that Paul was addressing a particular issue that existed in a particular societal context, i.e. propriety in public worship. He was not addressing male-female relations in general. And in Ephesians he is speaking about mutual submission, i.e. yielding one’s rights to support and grow the relationship – he is not speaking about obedience!

To take such verses out of the context of the rest of the bible and out of context of the society in which such guidance was intended is to misuse scripture. And using such scriptures to support gender inequality is something that you and I must not condone.

Dr Stewart concludes her story this week by suggesting that addressing gender inequalities and empowering women and girls is one of the powerful tools the church has to fight poverty. The work of ABM in these overseas countries is helping to bring enlightened understanding to the people. And we can contribute in a small way towards this program. Just a little from many adds up to huge possibilities and impacts that can make a significant difference to the world.

Likewise, in Australia, you and I ought to be concerned about the increasing abuse, homelessness and inequality of women. Taking Jesus Christ as our example we ought to speak against such injustices and take any opportunity to address gender inequalities and empower women and girls.


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