Reflecting on last week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London, the Anglican Communion’s director for Women in Church & Society, the Revd Canon Terrie Robinson, asks why there were so few men at the Commonwealth Women’s Forum.
“We are family. I’ve got all my sisters and me.” Playing this rousing chorus from the Sister Sledge classic is how the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Patricia Scotland QC, opened the first session of the Commonwealth Women’s Forum in London.
Baroness Scotland certainly set the tone and the pace for the three days of the Forum during which delegates with leadership roles in politics, industry, civil society, education and faith institutions – and members of the UK’s royal family – shared experience and ambitions for the empowerment of women and girls, and gender equality in the Commonwealth, at every stage and age of life.
But the fact that we were “all my sisters and me” did present the first challenge of the Forum. Why is it that we say “gender equality is not a women’s issue”, but then organise women’s forums to discuss it?
Of course it’s vital that women should be able to meet together to share stories and solidarity, and to plan their contributions to dismantling unjust power relations and securing gender equality particularly for women and girls. But the guys have to get involved. The problem isn’t men per se, it is power – who has it and how it is used. And in spite of progress, men have most of it. Also, patriarchy, present in nearly all our societies, can distort the lives of men and boys, and even destroy them.
There were a handful of men in the Women’s Forum, active champions of gender equality. They were applauded and we need many more like them, not least in our Churches.
A second challenge was the low esteem in which faith institutions are still often held when it comes to gender justice. In the Forum, those of us representing faith organisations had to struggle against assumptions among delegates from organisations working for the human rights of women and girls, that we had little to offer. Faith leaders are still seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution, and horrible stories abound.
So many of us have worked so hard for years to change that narrative, but we haven’t yet done enough. We must do more to teach, preach and model just power relations in our ministries and our social outreach – and we need to do a better job of telling others what we are striving to do, and indeed succeeding in doing, otherwise we will not be seen as credible leaders and co-workers in liberating women and girls from structures and cultures which hold them back. We have our belief that women and men have equal God-given dignity, and we have the Jesus model of masculinity – so we have no excuse.
The Bishop of Swaziland, Ellinah Wamukoya, was one of a plenary panel of speakers reflecting on “Overcoming Barriers: Ending Violence against Women and Girls”, joining Lord Bates, UK minister for International Development, Ghana’s minster for Gender, Children & Social Protection, the UN Secretary General’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, and Australia’s minister for International Development and the Pacific.
Bishop Ellinah spoke as a faithful Christian leader about the role of faith leaders in sensitising their communities, changing attitudes and behaviours, and advocating for legislation relating to the rights and wellbeing of women and children, or the implementation of existing legislation. She ended with a strong appeal, “If you come to me and call me a stereotype in a purple shirt, I won’t hear you. Make me understand. Walk with me. . . Faith leaders are left behind in these fora and yet we are in the core of things and if you don't include us and walk with us, how can you expect us to help you.”
A third challenge is how we ensure gender equality for our youth so that they grow up with this as the norm and have every opportunity to fulfil their potential as adults. The Commonwealth has a huge young population – India alone has 600 million under the age of 25 – and, as we met in the Women’s Forum, 500 exceptional young people determined to make their countries, the Commonwealth and the world a better place, were meeting in the Commonwealth Youth Forum.
Twelve years of quality education for all our girls and boys would be a great place to start. There are still tens of millions of young people, mostly girls, unable to complete their education because of poverty or the expectations of their cultures. This is something for all governments to grasp urgently, and civil society and faith communities will surely support them.
Sometimes we will just need to get out of our young people’s way! Young people have huge potential to be agents of change in their communities and as one speaker noted, “Magic happens not when adults are reaching young people on issues of social justice, but when they are in touch with each other through social media platforms”. Of course some support and advice in the background is a good thing, and this is where our church leaders and communities can help young people to understand the world they are living in.
My prayers are with the Commonwealth Heads of Government. They have an enormous task ahead as they discern concrete measures that leave no one behind and ensure the “common” and the true “wealth” are built into the Commonwealth.