South Asian church women discuss challenges and seek gender justice

Posted Oct 19, 2015

[Anglican Communion News Service] Women from the Anglican and United Churches of South Asia share achievements in their work with women and girls and explore challenges in seeking gender justice in their region.

An International Anglican Women’s Network (IAWN) regional consultation for South Asia has brought together the Network’s Provincial Links (contacts) and a number of other women from the Church of North India, Church of South India, Church of Bangladesh and Church of Ceylon who have leadership roles in mission and ministry among women and girls.

“This was an important and inspirational conference with stories shared of achievements and challenges in the Church’s work towards gender justice”, said IAWN Steering Group convener, Ann Skamp. “It celebrated the resilience of women in the region and enabled mutual encouragement and a commitment to support each other.

“It is clear that women in the South Asia Churches have many challenges in common but that there are also challenges specific to local contexts such as those associated with the dowry system and the continuing significance of caste identities in India, and the support urgently needed for war widows, families of the disappeared, and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence following years of civil conflict in Sri Lanka.

“An analysis of power as the ability to create or resist change gave all of us an insight into how advantage and disadvantage works and how strategies are needed to help us remove barriers to progress in improving the status of women and girls.”

Church of South India Moderator Bishop Dr Godava Dyvasirvadam joined participants for their opening worship and encouraged them to be a movement of women, rather than a group of women, serving as guardians of the faith, as change-makers and as bridge builders towards a new order.

The South Asia consultation took place 6 to 8 October at the Henry Martyn Institute, an international centre for research, inter faith relations and reconciliation in Hyderabad, India.

Participants in the consultation shared positive stories about the enabling of women’s leadership within the Churches of South Asia and in their communities. Initiatives of the Church of South India Women’s Fellowship, for example, have included training programmes for rural pastors’ wives and Bible Women, and providing opportunities for younger women to take an active part in church activities.

The Church of North India Women’s Fellowship of Nagpur Diocese and the All India Council of Christian Women used the annual International Women’s Day to visit police stations where they honoured the contributions of women police officers. At the same time, they spoke with male police officers and advocated for women-friendly police stations, where those reporting domestic violence are treated respectfully and not dismissed or humiliated.

Such hopeful stories however are set against a background of significant challenges. Patriarchal attitudes upheld by many women as well as men, the favouring and special treatment of boys over girls within families, and cultures of rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment were identified as critical and persistent barriers to the human rights and flourishing of women and girls in the region.

The participants therefore took a number of steps together in order to understand better the status quo and to consider strategies for the future. Role play showed how wives have a different experience and fewer opportunities than their husbands in spite of having the same social background. Bible studies from a liberative perspective and discussion on the theology of gender affirmed the strong potential for women in the South Asia context, in spite of their broken situation, to be ambassadors of transformation and builders of just relationships in church and community.

Since the South Asian Churches represent a religious minority and are most often involved at grassroots level with little voice into the national arena, the women recognised the importance of networking among themselves and discovering their allies in the Churches and in civil society in order to interact with governmental and human rights institutions at national and international levels. They also looked at using existing and emerging movements and campaigns for gender justice.

Some churches in the region already take part in the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence (25 November to 10 December) and the White Ribbon campaign which is an international movement equipping men and boys to take responsibility for ending violence against women and girls. Male pastors have been encouraged to take a lead in preaching a Jesus-type masculinity which empowers women rather than subjugating them.

This year’s theme for the 16 Days is ‘From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All!’. The participants therefore reflected on how their Churches might engage with families and communities to transform attitudes and practices that restrict girls’ access to education in South Asia, and that have a negative impact on the safety of girls when they are at school or on the journey to and from school.

The participants learned about the new global Faith Movement for Gender Justice and considered how a future regional workshop for faith leaders in South Asia might work in an inter faith setting.

A message to Church leadership in the region and to the Anglican Consultative Council is being drafted drawing on the key issues arising during the consultation and seeking solidarity and support.

Photographs from the consultation are here.

A report and resources from the consultation are being gathered and will shortly be posted on the IAWN website here.