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Gender has everything to do with it

March 28, 2011

By Marianne Comfort, Institute Justice Team

This year’s Ecumenical Advocacy Days in D.C. posed the question: Development, security and economic justice: what’s gender got to do with it? The answer, it turned out, is “plenty.”

That more than 600 Christians of many traditions gathered at a hotel in the shadow of the Pentagon to reflect on that question was quite fitting, given that much of the discussion involved violence at various levels, from economic and environmental to violence committed by militaries and by intimate partners.

I could only attend a handful of the dozens of workshops that raised issues spanning the globe and the justice agenda. But I hope that sharing some of what I learned and what touched my heart will inspire you to join the participants in action.

First stop, Mexico, as Rev. Daisy Machado, academic dean at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, echoed the great concern about violence near the U.S. border expressed a few weeks ago by Mercy Sisters Betty Campbell and Aine O’Connor. She added some dramatic statistics to specifically address the impact on women: 400 girls and women killed in Ciudad Juarez since 1993. She noted that exploitative factories along the border also have a disproportionate impact on women, as more than half of the 200,000 workers are girls and young women aged 14 to 25.

Regina Oldak, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, then brought us closer to home with remarks about the disproportionate impact of the U.S. recession on women. She cited statistics that women lost 3 out of 10 jobs lost in the recession, but are only gaining 1 out of 10 jobs in the recovery. Reductions in the workforce at all government levels disproportionately affect women also, since they make up the largest numbers of positions eliminated such as teachers, childcare workers and public health nurses.

We also heard concerns about Congress’ proposals to cut foreign assistance by 20 percent, although it only makes up less than 1 percent of the federal budget and reductions won’t have any impact on the deficit or debt. Most of the losers, if this passes, would be women who make use of U.S.-funded health and development programs: more women dying in childbirth, more mother-to-child HIV transmission, fewer girls enrolled in school, fewer sustainable agriculture projects.

Ritu Sharma, co-founder of an international women’s advocacy organization called Women Thrive Worldwide, inspired participants by relating a history of violence in her own family and then expanding her lens to take in women experiencing violence around the world. She called attention to the International Violence Against Women Act, which missed passage in Congress last year and is expected to be introduced again this summer. Provisions call for, among other things, including prevention and response to violence against women in U.S. Defense Department training of foreign military and police forces, and the State Department laying out what steps it would take in situations of systematic violence such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where women are raped routinely as a method of warfare. She also called for the U.S. Agency for International Development to uphold its pledge that 10% of all aid go to local women’s organizations, and she warned that poorly designed development projects could actually increase violence to women as their increased independence threatens the men in their households.

The session on Afghanistan gripped me the most, and there will be more to share as we near July, a month initially set by the Obama administration for the beginning of troop withdrawal. For now, it’s enought to know that human rights and peace advocates David Wildman and Tom Andrews laid out a frightening picture of U.S. involvement in that country that is costing American lives — in battle and to suicide — and actually boosting the ranks of Taliban as they rally to throw out the foreign invaders. Suraya Sadeed, executive director of the peace-education organization Help the Afghan Children, talked about the need to change the culture of aggression institutionalized in Afghanistan over the past few decades and its impact on women. She argued passionately that, while she wants peace in Afghanistan — and she repeated that phrase several times — she doesn‘t want it to be based on a compromise between the U.S. and the Taliban that leaves out improvement in women’s rights.

I could have left the conference feeling overwhelmed at all the challenges presented, but that was tempered by the hope found in the commitment of so many to respond in creative and systemic ways.

Many of the Ecumenical Advocacy Days participants were going to visit their legislators today to demand that lawmakers keep the needs of persons who are poor and vulnerable around the country and world in mind as they make budget decisions over the next couple of weeks, and that they support pending legislation that addresses violence against women both domestically and overseas.

Here are a few ideas for joining them in their advocacy, wherever you live:

  •  Click here to send an email to your legislators urging them to adopt a budget that considers revenue and deeper cuts in the military to avoid cuts to critical services for persons who are poor and vulnerable;
  •  Join Catholic Relief Services’ advocacy for preserving foreign assistance in the federal budget
  • Check out the New Priorities Network, a partnership between human needs groups and peace advocates that calls for “bringing the money home” from the military to local communities. There you’ll find links to efforts in Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and the San Francisco area to get local officials to support military cuts in order to preserve local services. You’ll also find information for starting up a campaign in your community.
  • Participate in the Global Day of Action on Military Spending, on April 12. The website’s fact sheets include information on how the $1.2 million dollars currently spent each year on each soldier in Afghanistan could be used instead to reduce state budget deficits.
  • Contact your legislators to urge them to sponsor the International Violence Against Women Act. More information and an easy way to send an email message to your Representative may be found here
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