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'Repairing the World': Anglican women bring global views to U.N. forum

By Matthew Davies

Matthew Davies/ENS
From left to right: Archdeacon Taimalelagi Tuatagaloa-Matalavea, Amelia Ward, Pauline Sathiamurthy, Marian Wright Edelman, Dr. Ester Mombo, The Rev. Sereima Lomaloma and Angela King.   (Matthew Davies/ENS)

[Episcopal News Service]  Uniting to address poverty, disease and gender equity among other issues worldwide, Anglican women attending the 49th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) led a March 6 forum seeking international solutions to expand healthcare, education, and economic justice.

"Repairing the World: Anglican Women's Faith in Action," was moderated by the Anglican Observer at the United Nations, Archdeacon Taimalelagi Tuatagaloa-Matalavea, and included reflections from Kenya, Polynesia, South India, United States and West Africa.

Keynote speaker Marian Wright Edelman -- founder and president of the U.S.-based Children's Defense Fund -- called participants, gathered at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to solidarity in prioritizing the needs of children, as well as the eradication of poverty and violence.

"Women and people of faith need to teach our children that there are some enduring values that don't change even when the environment changes around them," Edelman said. "We need to make our young people hear what we think is important ... Our nations' and our world's moral compass need to be safe."

Jamaica-born Angela King, former United Nations assistant secretary general and special adviser on gender issues and advancement of women, spoke about violence against women and the role of women in peacemaking. "We know that violence is increasing all over the world and the United Nations has very firmly come out and said that violence cannot be tolerated," she said. "We need to collect data at the national level and adopt zero tolerance campaigns."

There are many instances where women throughout the world are helping the peace process, King added. "Women in Liberia, for example, went into the forest to make soldiers lay down arms. Women in Somalia persuaded warlords to come back to the table to discuss peace."

In South Africa, where she worked in the lead up to the first democratic elections, King's job was to reduce tension and create the kind of environment where peaceful elections could take place. "We found that women became very successful at the local level," she said. "It was practice in South Africa for men to stage walkouts -- women never did that and in fact they often persuaded the men to come back to the table."

King insisted that women are better at negotiating. "They are perceived to be less threatening," she said. "Women are also better at reconciliation ... I hope that when you return to your countries and churches you will be inspired to work towards the Beijing Platform for Action," a declaration created in 1995 to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women.

UNCSW was established in 1946 to promote women's rights in political, economic, civil, social and educational fields. Since 1995, a priority has been to assess the progress of BPFA.

Test of morality

Edelman offered some sobering statistics about how an American child is abused and neglected every 30 seconds and one is born into poverty every 60 seconds. "After we commit to speaking truth to power we need to redefine and grab back morality," she said. "The test of morality in a society is how we treat our children. We are the wealthiest and also the most militarily powerful nation and somehow we can't protect our children."

"We can eliminate child poverty in this nation and we are going to do it," she added.

Encouraged by the many women worldwide who advocate for peace and justice, Edelman said, "Just imagine what we can do if we all get together ... We can see and envisage a world where there is no more child poverty. We must believe it and then we must act on it."

Highlighting other important factors in achieving such goals, Edelman spoke about the need to renew one's faith "as with God and with courage we can get anything done," but also urged women to assign themselves rather than relying on others.

"We get so overwhelmed ... let's just remember that each of us can be a flea: a flea for justice, a flea for women, a flea for children," she said. "Just remember that fleas make very big dogs uncomfortable. We will move these big dogs of injustice away."

Edelman described how influential her childhood had been in giving her the determination to make a difference in the world. "I learned very early on what the smallest helping hands can mean to a person in need," she said. "I was taught that the world had a lot of problems but that I could change them."

That message is reflected in the women here, Edelman added. "We have got to convey that same vision to our children and grandchildren. We need to make the message of this world clearer so that they can have a decent world to grow up in."

God's calling

During the panel reflections, King said that it was a great honor to be on same platform with Edelman, "who women all over the world have heard of and admire."

King was the first person ever to receive the Anglican Observer's award for global service -- conferred in the presence of Archbishop of Canterbury -- in recognition of her work.

The Rev. Sereima Lomaloma, diocesan secretary and registrar for the Diocese of Polynesia, was the first indigenous woman to be ordained in her province. "God calls each one of us at a particular time for a particular purpose," she said. "When I was ordained it was very significant because it was indicative of how barriers can be broken."

Lomaloma left a job with the public service to take up her position as diocesan secretary in 2000. "When I heard about the job I immediately thought that it was for me," she said. "I was not interested in how much it pays. I believed that God had called me. I know that God had prepared me for that time. Over the years God had shown me in very practical ways that this is God of abundance, miracle and a God who provides for me."

Meanwhile, Dr. Ester Mombo, in her role as academic dean of St. Paul's United Theological College in Kenya, tries to ensure that students are equipped to be critical thinkers and servants of God and humanity. "Society is changing and has crucial issues that affect humanity," she said. "As a theological educator I hope to inform the work that women do."

In her work with women and children who live with HIV/AIDS, Mombo said that her faith is challenged every day. "My role is to help my students to break the silence of the church, to make the church accommodate those who are infected and affected and to stand with them in times of need," she said. "My role is to help my students to be able to empower women wherever they are ... The church has a moral obligation to make sure the treasures of theological education are available to all women who wish to participate..."

During a question-and-answer session following the panel discussion, Mombo urged Anglican women to put pressure on the government. "It's stronger if Christians stand up and we need a stronger way of dealing with these issues," she said. America is good at telling the world how it should run but not good at listening. Listen to what we are saying, stand with us, but continue to put pressure on your own government."

As general secretary of the Church of South India (CSI), Asia's largest and oldest ecumenical church, Pauline Sathiamurthy describes her surroundings as a "patriarchal male-dominated society," and she is proud to be "a woman working in a man's world."

"Women are marginalized," she said, "but the Church of South India has launched a massive campaign against these practices."

Sathiamurthy also explained how women in South India are robbed of dignity and independence and are exposed to many hazards in workplace. Furthermore, she said, little girls have become prostitutes and men come and use them and then abandon them once they know they are infected with HIV.

"CSI is trying to forge forward and put sense into society and push forward the plight of the woman.

Another issue in India, Sathiamurthy explained, is the small minority of the upper caste and the large majority of the lower caste. "It is a primary concern of the Church in India that the same privileges are extended to the lower caste and to all Christians irrespective of caste.

Amelia Ward, a Liberian widow with four children, is an activist and leader of the Mano River Peace Process in West Africa. She explained the plight of people in an area which has endured 14 years of civil conflict: "750,000 people became refugees. 1.2 million became displaced," she said. "Most are women and children. Women are raped or murdered and forced into marriages. The emotional and psychological costs are high as we try to rebuild our lives."

Speaking about her personal compassion for humanity, Ward emphasized her strong belief in God. "Faith and strong determination ensure that the message of women and children is heard," she said. "We were determined to be a part of peace process and talks. Our faith was able to bring sanity to Liberia. We are embarking now on projects and programs that will empower women."

Ward added that her motto is: in God everything is possible. "Together we can bring peace to our world," she said. "And God is bringing Anglican women together to repair the world."

Closing prayers were offered by Phoebe Griswold, convener of the Anglican Women's Empowerment Team. Griswold is the wife of the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, who attended the forum presentation. Diocesan Bishop Mark Sisk and Bishop Suffragan Cathy Roskam of New York were also in attendance.

Further information about UNCSW can be found online at: