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Listening: Education, health care central to a just society, Anglican women agree

By Matthew Davies
[Episcopal News Service]  The increased participation of women in leadership roles and providing adequate healthcare and education are the most vital components to developing a just and civil society, Anglican women from Burundi, India, Malawi and South Africa agreed during a February 27 lunchtime discussion panel at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City.

Organized by Episcopal Relief and Development, the panel, titled "Where We Stand Now: Enhancing Anglican Women's Participation in Development," formed part of the 50th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW), which runs through March 10 and hosts more than 100 women representing 37 Anglican provinces -- the largest-ever gathering of Anglican women to convene in New York.

Panel members were Claudette Kigeme of the Anglican Church of Burundi; Dr. Pauline Sathiamurthy of the Church of South India; Sizakele Shongwe of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa; and Jocelyn Tengatenga of the Diocese of Southern Malawi in Central Africa.

Although from different cultural contexts, all four agreed that women need to have increased participation in decision-making processes at all levels.

As provincial secretary of the Church of South India (CSI), Dr. Pauline Sathiamurthy is responsible for the administration of 22 dioceses and the facilitation of all development programs. She is one of few women in a leadership role in her country.

"Culturally, India is a very conservative country and women are treated as second-class citizens," said Sathiamurthy, who explained that the CSI has developed a mandate that women should account for 30 percent participation throughout all levels of the church.

Women and children are very vulnerable in Indian society, so "we have declared this the decade for the empowerment of the girl child," Sathiamurthy said. "In the name of religion, young girls are forced into prostitution and become victims of HIV/AIDS."

Some villages in India are inhabited only by women who have been abandoned by men because they are infected with HIV/AIDS.

One of the four United Churches in the Anglican Communion, CSI is the largest and oldest ecumenical church in India. "We felt the need for this coming together of denominations because of the challenges we face as a result of the Islamist and Hindu fundamentalist groups and so that we can unite and work in the communities where there are big challenges," Sathiamurthy, a member of the Anglican Consultative Council, explained.

Labeled as a violation of human rights by many Western countries, one such challenge is the caste system in India that discriminates by virtue of one's birth. There are certain communities, such as the Dalits or the "no-class people" -- formerly known as "the untouchables" -- who are oppressed and abused by higher caste communities.

Another challenge is increased migration from rural areas into the cities as people seek better economic opportunities. Unfortunately, the availability of employment is sparse, "so we have large communities of street people," Sathiamurthy said. "We have made this a mission of our church: to find girls and boys who are willing to go into school, and to sponsor them. The ones who are not willing, we try to teach them other skills so that they don't become pickpockets" or turn to crime.

The church also sends out missionaries to play games with street children and to help them understand the values of life. "When they learn certain skills we put them in places where they can earn a livelihood to get them off the streets," Sathiamurthy explained.

Another issue the church addresses is unauthorized child labor. "We have children under the age of 14 working in factories that make matches or fireworks," Sathiamurthy said. "We are trying to sensitize the government but also to work with communities who send their children into this labor."

In Burundi, Kigeme is a Mothers' Union provincial coordinator and much of her work assists families in areas such as social health, spirituality and reconciliation.

Social culture constraints, lack of education, poverty and inadequate healthcare are interlinked, she explained. But the church in war-ravished Burundi is active in these areas and offers some hope to the community.

"Ill health affects the community and families as well as the individual," Kigeme said. "[Burundi] has been at war for more than 20 years and many people have died and others are living in displaced camps. Thousands continue to die from HIV/AIDS, poverty and other diseases."

When ill, many Burundians stay at home and suffer quietly because they don't have the money to pay for healthcare. Life expectancy in the country is currently 40 years.

"385 children out of every thousand die before they are 5 years old," Kigeme said. "Many die of diseases that could have been prevented through education."

The church is helping to offer that education and also assists with much-needed micro-credit and illiteracy programs, but the needs are great and the beneficiaries are few, especially as "there are 2.5 million women in need," Kigeme said.

"Today while some Christians are dying of hunger and malnutrition there are others [in the world] suffering from diseases due to overeating," she added. "It is time to take initiatives to help Anglican women make a difference through development."

Jocelyn Tengatenga, schools and colleges chaplain for the Diocese of Southern Malawi in Central Africa, explained that 40 percent of healthcare in Malawi is provided by the church and adult literacy programs are being run by the Mothers' Union. However, there are very few women in leadership roles and the province does not ordain women to the priesthood.

"Teachings of the church promote male dominancy, and social attitudes are so entrenched in the Malawian culture that discrimination has contributed to the marginalization of women," said Tengatenga, wife of Bishop James Tengatenga of Southern Malawi. "We are trying to change the teachings and help women to participate in full ministry. If we train the younger generation they will grow up with that knowledge and take up leadership roles in the future."

Sizakele Shongwe from the Diocese of the Highveld in Southern Africa has worked in various capacities in advocacy and public policy and has been researching NGO participation in policy making.

"The Church of the Province of Southern Africa [CPSA] has taken great strides in education and health and Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane [of Cape Town] has been at the forefront of the Millennium Development Goals," an 8-prong declaration that commits to the eradication of poverty by the year 2015.

South Africa's finance minister, Trevor Manuel, has recently established a budget that invests more in health and education, a move that excites Shongwe, but the country is still "plagued with the problem of unemployment," she said. "Social grants are needed for children and the elderly and the budget didn't reflect that ... Basic income grants help to reach people who fall through the social net."

The church is committed to pastoral and spiritual support and visiting people in hospitals and homes but "it needs to do more in challenging stigma and discrimination" as well as developing more programs that create access to education and help clear up misconceptions.

The CPSA has seen an increase in the ordination of women clergy and makes provisions for women to participate fully in education and health.

One of the biggest challenges, Shongwe acknowledged, is strengthening the church's lobbying and advocacy "so that we can fulfill our mission to be a prophetic voice in the world."

Kigeme, Sathiamurthy, Shongwe and Tengatenga will join other Anglican women at the UNCSW in attending daily worship, U.N. briefings, plenary sessions and caucuses and serving as a common witness to the vital role of women in today's global village.

Further information about UNCSW can be found online at: