8 March, International Women’s Day, saw women all over the world speak out and celebrate women who are ‘bold for change’. Although throughout the world gender discrimination and inequality remain a barrier to women and their communities flourishing, change is happening.
Hosted by the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester and the first female bishop to have a seat in the UK House of Lords, the event saw advocates for gender justice gathered at Parliament.
Bishop Rachel first introduced Muzoon Almellehan , an 18 year old Syrian refugee who is an advocate for girls’ education. When Mazoum was in a refugee camp in Jordan, she would go from tent to tent to encourage girls to get an education. “I spent three years in the camp trying to keep up my classes,” Muzoon said. “Girls need teachers not husbands,” she declared, reflecting on the number of girls who were being married off early in the camps.
“I want to go back to Syria to rebuild it with pens and books,” Muzoon added. Speaking on behalf of the Malala Fund, she called on the UK government to increase support for education, especially for female refugees.
Bishop Rachel explored the significant role that faith leaders can take to secure gender justice, as set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. “Our voices together can speak loudly,” Bishop Rachel said. “Everyone has a sphere of influence… Church leaders have a key role to play.”
Rt Hon Lord Bates, Minister of State at the UK Department for International Development reflected on the commitment of all faiths to human wellbeing. “All faiths have compassion for humanity on their hearts,” he said. Reflecting on the central importance of gender equality, Lord Bates said: “You cannot eradicate poverty if you leave half the community on the sidelines.”
Christian Aid’s Chief Executive, Canon Loretta Minghella, stated that two thirds of the world’s extreme poor are women and girls. “Poverty has a female face,” she said. To see poverty overcome, she added, women need personal, social and political power. “Change is coming,” Loretta said. “There is no room for complacency but there is room for hope.”
Mandy Marshall, Co-Director of Restored, described a situation when she was visiting Zimbabwe. After she had spoken to a group about ending domestic violence, one woman told her how she had endured much violence and finally spoken to her pastor. The pastor’s response was shocking, Mandy said. “The pastor said I should pray more, submit more and stop nagging him,” the woman had told Mandy.
This was one of the spurs which took Mandy and her Co-Director, Peter Grant, into launching Restored, an initiative to mobilise Christian communities to end violence against women. “Every church should have policy and procedure in place to prevent violence against women,” Mandy said. With one third of women affected in the world, “violence against women and girls is also fundamentally undermining the Sustainable Development Goals,” she added.
“Faith based organisations have great reach and influence at both national and local level in millions of communities across the globe. With the right support, we believe they have the potential to challenge the injustice of gender inequality and hasten the end of violence against women,” Mandy said.
A powerful reminder of the challenges that women face in every country came from Niki Gould of the Nelson Trust, a UK organisation that supports disadvantaged women. Talking about the female prison system in the UK, she said over 60% of women in prison are victims of domestic abuse. “We need to break the inter-generational cycle of trauma, abuse and reoffending.”
Finally Revd Terrie Robinson, Director for Women in Church and Society at the Anglican Communion Office, described the Side by Side movement for gender justice of which she is Co-Chair. “The empowerment of women and men to live in just relationships needs a transformation of individuals, of communities and of cultures,” Terrie said.
“Faith groups are a permanent presence in every community. And people still listen to faith leaders! And actually governments listen to faith leaders! So faith leaders are in a very strong position to be challenging harmful cultural norms and practices.”
Reflecting on the International Women’s Day event, Revd Rachel Carnegie, Anglican Alliance Co-Executive Director, said: “It’s a long journey, but change is happening. More girls than ever are being educated and women are finding meaningful and empowering roles in society. Increasingly church leaders are speaking out with a positive vision of women and men standing side by side in just relationships and mutual dignity, each made in the image of God.”
The Anglican Alliance promotes approaches to gender justice and ending violence against women and girls in all its work. These issues are inherent in all other spheres of relief and development. Women and girls are more exposed to risk during and after disasters. Dynamics of gender inequality and discrimination affect every area of the Sustainable Development Goals and must be transformed to see those goals fulfilled and for humanity to flourish in common dignity.