Note: Sensitive issues of Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights discussed in this blog post.
The Charter of the United Nations includes among its basic principles the achievement of international cooperation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion (Art. 1, para. 3). Tradition and religion play into it like this:
Traditional cultural practices reflect values and beliefs held by members of a community for periods often spanning generations. Every social grouping in the world has specific traditional cultural practices and beliefs, some of which are beneficial to all members, while others are harmful to a specific group, such as women. These harmful traditional practices include female genital mutilation (FGM); forced feeding of women; early marriage; the various taboos or practices which prevent women from controlling their own fertility; nutritional taboos and traditional birth practices; son preference and its implications for the status of the girl child; female infanticide; early pregnancy; and dowry price. Despite their harmful nature and their violation of international human rights laws, such practices persist because they are not questioned and takeo n an aura of morality in the eyes of those practising them. (https:/www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/FactSheet23en.pdf)
Since the very first Commission on the Status of Women, Harmful Practices have been examined under the specific lens of Harmful Practices against women. The two chief practices that I have been learning about and for which we still advocate against are Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child Marriage.
Because these harmful practices are based in tradition, culture, and even sometimes religion, they are quite difficult to “Legislate out.” Even when laws and regulations are agreed to at the State level, even when penalties are placed on the perpetrators, these traditions are still being carried out at the family and local level.
For example, on my visit to the Eritrean Ministry I learned that FGM has been outlawed for many years, but devastatingly, over 87% of Eritrean girls are still being cut.
At another event, a female Kenyan government official passionately decried child “Marriage” and said we need to label it as what it really is: child rape and enslavement. She explained that marriage is a consensual agreement, and in child marriage, there is no consent on behalf of the bride. Child “Marriage” leads to early pregnancy in teen years and even in childhood and always results in higher infant mortality rates and death under 5 rates. Girls forced into marriage do not continue their education, and most face devastating health conditions for the remainder of their life because their bodies were not ready for child bearing. One such issue is Obstetric Fistula, which can cause incontinence and is very painful
In an emotional presentation about such harmful practices, I heard from three different countries:
Youth Champion Advocate and nurse Smriti Thapa explained how her nursing clients were between 15 and 20 and typically on their 3rd pregnancy. She told about “Kamla”, a 16 year old who suffered the loss of her stillborn baby through a failed home delivery after which she hemorrhaged and in emergency surgery her uterus was removed. She had been forced into a marriage with a 30-year-old. She was the second child wife to this man, who had lost his first young wife to child birth. Ms Thapa explained that these young women have no control over their bodies and no access to contraceptives.
In Pakistan, marriage is glorified by the young girls who look with excitement to the day when they get to wear the beautiful traditional wedding clothes and jewelry. The problem is that these young women’s bodies are not ready for childbearing, and that they do not know Basic Life Skills or understand things like birth spacing and contraception. Pakistan is trying to curb this through innovative sexual education programs and teaching reproductive rights to girls and boys at an early age. It’s a “long game” approaching it this way, but through the education of the youngest generation, Pakistan hopes to change gender norms and challenge tradition. Pakistan is serious about this education: they will be teaching basic life skills and the consequences of early marriage to 4700 schools through training 1000 master teachers in the next 60 days! Bravo, Pakistan.
Auxilia Ponga works with faith-based communities to champion women. She is working on improving maternal and child health. Her approach is important to challenging traditional practices as she works with tribal chiefs and religious leaders to teach about the dangers of child marriage. Since focusing on the local, rural areas, the effort has lowered the incidence of child marriage from 42% to 31%. Many times, families feel forced to sell their children into marriage (or trafficking, which is another topic altogether) because they can’t afford the school fees or even afford to feed their children. So Ms. Ponga is working with faith-based organizations to pay school fees, lessening the chance that girls will be married for financial relief. They have raised awareness that Child Marriages are more subject to violence; and have begun teaching life skills and rights. They empower the girls in school through comprehensive education in sexual education. An important lesson learned from Zambia is that boys must be taught this information and these skills as well as girls, as teaching only the girls has not been as effective.
Though learning about harmful practices is devastating, I see hope in the unique approaches these countries and organizations are trying. My delegation, Ecumenical Women, is a coalition of many denominations across the globe who recognize the importance of Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights, and we are unique among the religious organizations as we advocate language for the final statement that will encourage education and empowerment for women and girls in respect to their reproductive rights.
In other panel discussions this week, I have been challenged to begin to consider some of our western practices as harmful as well, as the list of practices has not included some of our long-held rituals of initiation like binge drinking and hazing. I would love to hear what your reactions are to these traditional practices. Please also take a moment to consider what harmful practices your own traditions, cultures, and religions support without giving thought to the long-term consequences.
Spending 25 years in ministry and education in rural areas, I have an immense amount of passion for women and girls who grow up in these areas. Growing up in an urban area gives me an even wider perspective on education and opportunities within the rural setting. I didn’t realize how incredibly fortunate I had been to grow up in an urban area until I saw the difference in opportunities for rural students.
What I’ve noticed in our midwestern rural settings are that there is a much heavier emphasis placed on sports than arts, and that the number of extra-curricular groups are diminished in comparison to the urban setting. Diversity is rare, and so there tends to be a narrower perspective as far as the acceptance of alternate views (traditions, religions, etc.). Furthermore, not every student’s particular needs can be met within a social context, and services for special needs are sometimes more difficult to receive.
Of all the places I’ve serve, I see that Grand County fills a lot of gaps for its students to provide access to the arts and a diversity of extra-curricular activities like Brain Bowl and Model UN. Beyond education though, our rural area presents issues in transportation and housing, as well as access to services such as health, mental health, and even things we struggle with daily like cell service and Internet access.
The global rural issues are similar to ours, but magnified by about 1000%. Access to all of the issues listed above is more limited, and it is all compounded by a strong sense of tradition and culture. These traditions and cultures in the rural areas seem dominated by historically patriarchal leadership and a very strong sense of machismo.
What I hear repeatedly in the many panels I have attended is that harmful practices like Child Marriage, Early Pregnancies, Violence against Women, and Female Genital Mutilation are intensified in rural areas, and indigenous women suffer the most of all rural people.
There are many reasons for this. Cultural gender norms and tradition weigh heavily in rural areas, even when the national law has prohibited marriage until 18, and when FGM is declared illegal. Think of it as Colorado’s State’s rights – Colorado has legalized recreational use of marijuana, but it is still illegal federally. Except globally, traditions and religious practices of a culture are nearly impossible to “legislate out.”
Today I visited the Consulate of Eritrea with a mostly Presbyterian delegation representing Ecumenical Women. This is a young country, located in the Horn of Africa, liberated and independently governed only for the past 26 years and signers of the CEDAW since 1996 (Convention to End All Discrimination Against Women). They are fighting hard within their own country to promote equality for women, and have established gender quotas for leadership within the country. FGM and child marriage has been outlawed there, and both are punishable by law, but they are still very prevalent in the rural areas because women and children do not know their rights.
I was so appreciative of the Eritrean Ministry to receive us so wholeheartedly, and to listen with such interest at our platforms. We listened as well, applauding this young country’s efforts to create gender equality. We were welcomed by their entire CSW delegation – five women and one man.
Greetings from the United Nations building on the East side of Manhattan. I’ve been here since Friday, taking in lots of Advocacy Training from my Presbyterian Church (USA) Delegation and enjoying exuberant worship with the Ecumenical Women delegation. The PC delegation is made up of about 20 women of all ages. The larger delegation, the Ecumenical Women, has our global partners as well as our US Lutheran (ELCA), Episcopal, UCC, and United Methodist brothers and sisters (among many many others). What a joy to work with these new friends as we advocate for the rights of women and girls in rural areas. Both the PC(USA) and the Ecumenical Women Council are NGO’s or “Non Governmental Organizations.” At the UN we have voice, but no vote, so I’ve been learning how to use my voice to influence change.
It has been a whirlwind of activities and meetings since I arrived, but I wanted to start this first post with a very basic primer on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This year marks the 62nd CSW, and the focus of this Commission is women in rural areas. Directly from the UN CSW Website:
The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. A functional commission of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), it was established by Council resolution 11(II) of 21 June 1946.
The CSW is instrumental in promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women.
The history of advocating for women at the UN is rich. I encourage you to learn more about it by clicking here.
The most important highlights of this history would probably be the “Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” (CEDAW) in 1963. It was an attempt to state in one document the standards agreed upon concerning women’s rights since the inception of the Commission in 1946. CEDAW was officially adopted by the UN in 1979. The United States remains as one of the very few Member States that has not signed on to CEDAW (shocking and frustrating at the same time).
Conferences in Mexico in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, and Nairobi in 1985 led to the 4th World Conference in Beijing and the Beijing Platform for action of 1995. My dear friend, Dr. Susanne Jalbert, was a presenter at the Beijing conference and shared her recollections of the event with me. We are so blessed and privileged to have her expertise and passion in our community. This summer, Dr. Jalbert and a group of empowered women kicked off an initiative to develop leadership skills in our very own rural girls through LEAD (Learn, Educate, Achieve, Dare), which was formerly called “Girls Leadership Council of Grand County.” We have two girls from CEH who are participating in this flagship leadership program right now: Krista Conrad and Emily Lantermans.
I’m so grateful to be representing Rural Women here this year. Thank you so much to the great community of CEH and Grand County for helping me make it here this year. I’ll be posting tomorrow about the similarities I have found between our global rural partners and Grand County!