Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr famously said: “No one is free until we are all free.” This statement, profound in its simplicity, finds company among the biblical command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. The idea relies upon the notion that not only must you love, but you must not do what another hates, because your freedom is bound up in your neighbour’s, no matter how comfortable you think your life is. Dr King’s philosophy always gives me reason to pause and think! I can honestly say it has been a while since I read the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and it has also been over 50 years since Dr King delivered that historic speech in Washington, DC. His dream, simply stated, is that all people are created equal and so, in preparation for International Women’s Day, I find myself asking three interconnecting questions in the context of Dr King’s vision for freedom, love and equality as it relates to the rights of women. In case you didn’t know, the month of March is Women’s History Month; it is an annual declared month that highlights the contributions of women in history and contemporary society. It is celebrated during March in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, and it corresponds with International Women’s Day held on March 8th.
One of my contemporary heroes is Michelle Obama; for me, she is an immensely talented woman who stands by her principles on issues of equality and rights. She is an influential, visible advocate for girls and women, and she is, I think, a Black woman all women can relate to. Michelle endorses the belief that to educate a girl is to build a healthier family, a stronger community and a brighter future. Why is this important to reference? Because unfortunately, today more than 62 million girls around the world are not in school, half of whom are adolescents. We have evidence that countries with more girls in secondary school tend to have lower maternal mortality rates, lower infant mortality rates, lower rates of HIV/AIDS and better child nutrition.
But too often, a girl who could change her world for the better is locked out of that future by the circumstances of her birth or the customs of her community and country. You may recall Michelle gave an address to the girls of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington, London, on April 2, 2009. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is a girls-only, inner-city comprehensive. At the time of the Michelle’s visit, 20% of its pupils were the children of refugees or asylum seekers; they spoke a total of 55 different languages, and 92% of them were from a Black or minority background. Three quarters of the pupils are eligible for free school meals, and Islington is one of the most deprived local authority areas in the country, with a higher rate of teenage pregnancy than the national average. These are not children from wealthy or privileged families, and if those statistics cause you concern, then you are beginning to question the injustice happening here.
Gender injustice is rooted in unequal power relations, and the most pervasive gender inequality is between women and men. Gender injustice violates human rights, constrains choice and agency, and negatively impacts upon people’s ability to participate in, contribute to and benefit from development and humanitarian relief. Unless we can help create just and equitable relationships between women and men of all ages and diversities, we will be unable to achieve equitable, sustainable, resilient and thriving societies.
A vision for gender justice is a vision for justice for all: of a renewed world where everyone – regardless of gender – can live alongside one another in mutually empowering relationships; are empowered to pursue their human rights and freedoms; are valued as equal and active participants in the social, political, cultural and economic wellbeing of their households, communities, and societies. The churches are asking questions in this area; for example, Rev Dr Susan Durber, a United Reformed Minister, writes: “Our being made ‘male and female’ is a gift of God, and should be experienced as joy for humankind. When gender becomes a weapon of oppression then something is badly wrong.”
The discrimination or subordination of one gender by another is an issue which is negatively affecting the social, political and economic development of every country in the world. It undermines our beliefs all people are of equal and unique value and worth, and are ‘of one flesh’. It is also counter to the fundamental tenet of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: that the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world is the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.
Three disturbing facts that make me uncomfortable (Source: UN and Amnesty):
- Millions of girls are forced into early marriages every year. These girls are at far greater risk of dropping out of school, experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, and suffering from domestic violence.
- 1 in 3 girls will be affected by domestic abuse – most likely from an intimate partner.
- Around the world, one woman dies every 90 seconds in pregnancy or childbirth – that’s more than 350,000 women every year.
These facts indicate the systematic discrimination of women and girls, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There is limited data to reflect the lived experiences of those most excluded, but they don’t have to be invisible to us. We can hold on to the hopes of freedom, and work towards it in the ways Jesus taught us. Our commitment to gender justice is akin to our commitment to the Christian faith, which requires us to build a different world that demonstrates the values of principles demonstrated and lived out by Christ Himself. During the month of March, visit the International Women’s Day website at www.internationalwomensday.com and learn about the issues, get involved and take action.