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Conversation with Anglican Delegates to the UNCSW

[Episcopal News Service]  Abagail Nelson, vice president of Episcopal Relief and Development, led a lively conversation with three Anglican delegates to the UNCSW on the theme "Transforming Vision into Action."

The panelists -- Lisbeth Barahona of the Diocese of El Salvador; the Rev. Joyce Kariuki of the Anglican Church of Kenya; and Dr. Jenny Te Paa, dean of the Anglican Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand -- brought perspectives from their individual contexts and highlighted some of the challenges of living in patriarchal societies. A transcript of the conversation follows:

NELSON: To begin our conversation, it would be helpful for us to get a sense from each of you about the context of your countries and societies and how you would describe the impact that that cultural context has on women. Lisbeth, what is life like in El Salvador?

BARAHONA: El Salvador has been a very struggling and conflicted and polemic country. I was born in the middle of El Salvador when the movements of people looking for social justice were starting. It was hard for my family and that is part of my heritage.

NELSON: You're referring to the civil war in El Salvador?

BARAHONA: Exactly. Since we're talking about women, the movements started mostly with women, in the communities and in the churches. There was a need to do what God tells us to do. To have peace and to have equal opportunities and to have access to a better life. It's an honor for me to be here and say that because I know many women died. They took their guns and they struggled. But we've moved on.

I was born an Anglican and got the opportunity to travel. I live part of my life in Panama and I went to an Episcopal school. Many people ask where I learned my English, well it was at an Episcopal School, I became bilingual there. I remember my principal at the school. She was a very empowered and wonderful woman and was very strict about addressing important issues. Meanwhile, we were always in touch with our country. I studied there and graduated in chemical engineering in El Salvador and I encountered a different society. It was a broken society. Families were torn apart. People had traveled and moved to the United States. I was adapting to a whole new generation of young people adapting to the peace agreements. The tables were there. There were a lot of roundtable discussions ... It was a good example of how to bring peace and try to solve your problems. I think we still have scars in our country and it is a great challenge living there. Many women have always kept their organizations and have focused very strongly on empowering women and preventing violence against women and they are very hard working and they keep on going and focus on areas in health. There are many programs relating to AIDS and the church is very active in that. El Salvador is a very crowded country. It is very difficult to deal with everyone because everyone has an opinion. We also have a very patriarchal tradition. We are mostly Roman Catholics in our country, but tradition says that men should be the ones who stand out in public positions and carry out the policies and have the highest corporate levels in companies. But there are a lot of professional women coming and I think it's a situation where gender is no longer an issue. Men respect me for being a chemical engineer. I decided to do projects by myself because it's the way you can move forward by taking initiatives and not doing things by the book. I have to be different and I use my skills and talents in order to develop projects to help El Salvador become a better country and there are many people in El Salvador who are doing great work and we are an example of an ongoing improvement society. When I hear my sisters from Africa and Asia and parts of the United States as well and South America about how women are desperate to just have a dignified life, I say I understand what's it's like to have a society where opportunities are not just there for you.

NELSON: Jenny, would you say that your own experience has also been similarly shaped by the context.

TE PAA: Indeed, it has been shaped by the context. As I listen to the stories that have been told this week, I sometimes tend to not want to participate as it seems that I come from an extraordinarily privileged context by comparison, but these things are all relative, I understand that. New Zealand is peace-filled has had a lengthy experience of peace. I think the last war we participated in was the Vietnam war. We have a history of peace-making. We are a country with 4 million people, primarily a Christian nation with a left leaning liberal democracy.

A story I can never resist telling because it is about women: we are a country that is led by a woman prime minister who has just won her third term election.; we have a woman governor general; our chief justice is a woman; and our attorney general is a woman; and they are all fine, fine women.

So this is just a little something about context. There are three distinctions I would make. There is the political context, which embraces the population of New Zealand. Now I am an indigenous woman, and like all previously colonized indigenous people, that left-leaning liberal democracy has a history of formation and of oppression of indigenous people, and so there is a particularly struggle for women in that context.

The second context is the ecclesial context. New Zealand is primarily an Anglican country. Most indigenous people, in fact maybe about 95 percent of us, are Anglican. So within our church and our experience that relates to our colonial history we have had as indigenous women a very particular struggle for our survival and that struggle has been rendered more complicated by the ethnic politics that accompany our journey through the church. So there is the ethnic context as well which is the third layer and for us as indigenous women we suffer all the kinds of indignities that have arisen not necessarily in New Zealand, but also replicated in Hawaii, Australia, Canada, this land, where as tribalism has reasserted itself as a reaction against the post-colonialist phase, there has arisen a new level of brutality and opposition to indigenous women's progress that was not previously there. So if I were to say what was the worst experience it would have to be the ethnic experience of trying to overcome some of those prejudices and those determinations not to change that are held by indigenous men.

NELSON: Joyce, how do you find things in Kenya? Do you see common threads that you hear from your sisters here?

KARIUKI: Yes, I do. Kenya is a country in the Eastern part of Africa and we have had independence for the last 40 years. We were a British colony and for the last many years Kenya has been a home to many of our African brothers and sisters whose countries have been involved in wars: Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Somalia, and recently the Sudan, and for that we have been the peace-makers of the region and it's a great privilege.

Kenya gained independence through the struggle of Mao Mao rebellion, and when the fight was going on women were not left behind. The men went to the bush and women were sneaking food to take to men, because the soldiers would not ask the women, but if they did we would say we are going to the farms. So in order for Kenya to get liberation and freedom it was indeed a collective responsibility between men and women and that continued even after independence, but basically Kenya is a patriarchal society and I believe that has a role to play in the position of a women because a lot of times women are in the lower positions. When it comes to the higher positions women are not there. I want to give my own experience as a banker. I was working in the Central Bank of Kenya, one of the biggest and best institutions and we couldn't even get house allowance because you are supposed to be married and the man is supposed to be taking care of you. We could not get medical cover for ourselves or our children, because somebody somewhere is supposed to be taking care of you. We struggled with it and fought it. Now women can get their house allowances and benefits. That not withstanding, discrimination has continued. The struggle for women to be in leadership even today is still there.

We are glad to produce the Nobel Peace Prize winner, a woman, Professor Wangari Maathai. She went through a lot in order for her to have her voice heard, but out of that we have been able to at least gain a platform whereby women are starting to stand out and know they have a right. With the present government we have quite a good number of women in positions, we have a good number of women judges. Now the deputy governor of the Central Bank is a woman. She used to work with me. I celebrate with her. That goes down in history because it has never been seen. Now we have for the first time in Kenya, the minister of constitutional affairs, that deals with the law, is a woman, and that is a big plus for us. We have many other portfolios that women are put in place. We see this government favoring women in many different ways and we are celebrating that.

NELSON: As a woman growing up in that patriarchal society in the midst of all that change and internal conflict and refugees coming in and our of the country, what was it that you felt in your life personally that enable you to be able to face the discrimination that you encountered as a woman.

KARIUKI: I grew up in the system: My father is polygamous, got married, moved and we were left with our mother and she struggled with us so, so much to where we are and that gave me a sense of struggling and fighting for the rights of women. And my mother was so kind because she used to let things go. As an African woman you cannot confront a man, so she would just let things go and I would tell her, mom I cannot be like you and will not be like you. My mother was a Christian and she would take us to church and Sunday School and that Christianity helped us and grounded us. At the same time, because of that, we got education. To me, education has been a turning point, because what I put on the table today and what has made me to have a voice and excel is because of education.

NELSON: Lisbeth, you were sharing similar points from your life. Do you feel that it was because of your mother and education that enabled you to take on some of the challenges.

BARAHONA: My best allies are my Dad and my Mother. I was brought up with very strong Christian values as Joyce. I think that also people at some point of your life come to you and encourage you to move on and to go and do it. You have the ability and the capacity to do it, just don't let anyone or anything let you down. Those people are the ones that enable you to really step out and be able to share you gifts. Education has been one of the aspect of my life that ahs helped me overcome the difficulties you find. My family is the main support and being able to access good education in my country has made changes and also awareness. But my awareness comes mainly from my family and my church.

NELSON: What is your experience Jenny? What enabled you to supersede the enormous strictures that were put on you as an indigenous woman?

TE PAA: There are two stories. One is that I am the fifth generation of the oldest daughter for each generation, which is very unusual. The second is a tribal story: the meeting house that my tribe owns and belongs to is one of the oldest in New Zealand and all of the meeting houses in New Zealand are named after male ancestors and his name is usually carved in front of the meeting house. On our meeting house, there is in fact a man and a woman together and it is the only one in New Zealand so my grandfather, who was the tribal leader, right from the time I was a small girl would take great pride in explaining to the people that equality was in fact a vision of our people. From 1924-27, my grandfather attended the Anglican Theological College that I was at, so there's a connection.

NELSON: But it was the influence of your grandfather.

TE PAA: Sure, and all the very strong women in my family. He was a particularly gentle and feminist grandfather.

NELSON: It is interesting as we talk about making the world a better place for our sisters, or younger sisters coming up behind us, the themes that we keep discussing are family, church and education. Joyce, could you share a little bit about how you work with your family and immediate group, to instill in them a sense of pride.

KARIUKI: One of the things that I have learned and I am trying to pass it on, is the issue of faith and knowing who God is in your life, because once you know that it gives you a source of identity and image and also promotes your self esteem. I have taken it upon myself to help my children to understand the word of God and those who are around me to influence the entire family and even the communities. It is important for us to ground ourselves in the world and know who God is because when you walk with God it doesn't matter what happens in your life you will still have something you can fall back to. The other aspect is the issue of education, the importance of having knowledge and that knowledge is power. Those two components and the unity together, being able to support one another as a family, those are the three things that I find very crucial and things that can help to make a difference in the lives of others, not only minding about themselves, but being accountable to their own citizens.

NELSON: Jenny, when you talk with your own family do you also share this core of faith as an essential avenue to moving forward and social change?

TE PAA: I suppose that as I've gotten older and got involved in the work that I have directly being employed by the church, I tend to take pride in that and I guess as my own example have tried to show what I mean by being a woman of faith. I tried to make the connection for my children about why it was important that we worshiped regularly. It wasn't just simply about building a routine in our lives, it was showing them why the other works that we did as a family in terms of supporting social services and food parcels and all those other kinds of things. It was more about trying to demonstrate how we ought to live our lives rather than making explicit connections. I was always as a lay person tentative about that. I guess as I've gotten more and more embedded in the institutional framework, I have found my own faith and my voice more explicitly and I hope that's a good thing.

NELSON: How would you describe it, Lisbeth?

BARAHONA: I would describe it by living it. Day by day trying to hold on to your principles, to have hope that there's always a way to have a better world and a better system and in my field of work when I have to go to the small businesses and teach them and train them how to do their work better, I speak to them as a woman of faith. Most of them are single moms who have to take care of two or three children and here they are employees of small companies and they have to post regulations and I train them but I touch their spirit too. I tell them that they have to do this because they will enjoy their life more, not just do it because you have to do it. So that's my way of bringing my faith into what I do. I have learned that new businesses are emphasizing the human aspect. It's not about just doing your job, but doing it because you love it or because you are good at it, and you can improve yourself while you are doing it.

NELSON: One of the things I've also noticed, particularly when you're working with people who are coming behind you or engaged in a moment of suffering, that sometimes the only thing we have to offer is a sense of excellence and a sense that God has a plan, and in that moment the question of discerning what that plan is, is what enables us to move forward in the face of adversity and take the courage to move forward. In your life Joyce, when you see people oppressed, women who are feeling that violence, that space of silence, how do you talk to them?

KARIUKI: That is very common in our set up, where women are oppressed. It's a daily occurrence. I deal with them first and foremost just being there for them, just knowing that they have someone they can rely on, a good heart, a smile, makes a whole lot of difference before we get into anything else. At the same time we share the Word of God and the courage of God and also, be practical. Is there anything else that I can do? Is it food that the woman does not have? Is it the children who are out of school? What is it, and what kind of aid can I give? So, apart from being there, apart from having faith and sharing the word of God, how practical can I be in as far as helping her to overcome her obstacles?

NELSON: Because at the end of the day, if we don't respond to people with that practical need, there is always going to be that need.

KARIUKI: Yes, if we don't respond to people in a practical way, even the faith we are trying to share doesn't hold water. It's irrelevant. So in order for the faith to be relevant it has got to be practiced practically. Then you'll be addressing the whole person.

NELSON: I think that is what we have seen in each life represented here, that there has been a practical response to the ongoing journey that we each have and somebody gave us something that was practical.