Justice Conference Reflections: Women and Equality

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:26-29

“Our identity is connected to our intimacy with the Lord.”– Mimi Haddad, President CBE

Because today is International Women’s Day, I felt it would be appropriate to write about the issue of global oppression of women. At the Justice Conference this past month, I sat in on workshops and sessions that discussed everything from sex trafficking to women leadership in church to the one-child policy in China. The thing that became apparent throughout the weekend was that gender inequality and oppression, although manifesting itself differently depending on the country you live in, is a universal tragedy. 

I heard the same statistic several times: approximately 60-100 million girls are missing from this earth.

Let that sink in. 

Even if you take the conservative figure, that’s equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom… or France… or Thailand. Imagine an entire nation wiped from the face of the earth because of gender.

This number originated from Amartya Sen, a Nobel-prize winning economist, who claims 100 million girls were "missing" through the likes of sex selective abortion, infanticide or poor nutrition during infancy. If you add to that number the girls and women who have been murdered due to honor killings, unsafe/forced abortions, domestic violence, trafficking, inadequate maternity and/or health care, effects from malnutrition and poverty, etc. the number goes up exponentially.  Chai Ling, author and founder of the non-profit organization All Girls Allowed, spoke about the 400 million babies lost due to coerced abortions since China’s one-child policy was implemented in 1979… that is more than the entire population of the United States.

These numbers add up to entire nations of mothers, sisters, and daughters… gone. 

“Biology is not destiny” – Mimi Haddad

Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide with her husband and NY Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, spoke at the Justice Conference. She stated that gender equality is the major moral challenge of the 21st century.

So how do we begin changing the culture, not just in the United States, but around the world, so women are seen as equals and are provided with the dignity and resources they need to thrive? Dr. Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, spoke in her session about how self-confidence is a significant factor that works against cycles of dominance. We should be asking the question: how can we nurture self-confidence and value in women and girls?

Sheryl WuDunn, photo by Rich Marshall

Sheryl WuDunn, photo by Rich Marshall

Sheryl WuDunn subsequently answered that question by stating the most effective way to promote the status of women is to educate girls and bring them into the labor force. It is clear that self-confidence in women is best established through integration in education and work.

WuDunn recalled a story from Bill Gates, which was also written about in an article from the NY Times, which speaks directly to why it’s so important to make strides in ridding the world of gender oppression.  It's essential to ensure the future success of the world economy.

Bill Gates recalls once being invited to speak in Saudi Arabia and finding himself facing a segregated audience. Four-fifths of the listeners were men, on the left. The remaining one-fifth were women, all covered in black cloaks and veils, on the right. A partition separated the two groups. Toward the end, in the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience noted that Saudi Arabia aimed to be one of the Top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010 and asked if that was realistic. “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” The small group on the right erupted in wild cheering.

I often have the same thought – I am so lucky to have born in the country I was born in, the decade I was born, into the family I was born.  However, I had no say in the matter. It was complete luck on my part. None of us choose the circumstances we were born into. Justice is about ensuring dignity for all of God’s creation, no matter their circumstances. “Justice is grounded in rights, in the worth, dignity, and value of human beings,” said Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff during his session at the Justice Conference. He went on to declare that true love is all about “advancing the person’s good.”

Gary Haugen, President and CEO of International Justice Mission, spoke about the work IJM has been doing to free individuals from bondage through the use of private investigators and buying people out of slavery. Sadly, right now there are 27 million slaves in the world. These are men, women and children, “each with a name, family and story… each deserve to be free.”  There are more people enslaved right now than at any other point in the history of the world, 80% of which are women. Haugen detailed the stories of two individuals, including one of the millions of girls trapped in the sex-trafficking industry. Haugen pleaded, “Justice is an aspect of God’s core character that needs our full attention.” He challenged the audience to figure out how we get past the statistics and actually see the individual who is enslaved as a fellow human being.

During the conference, Haugen requested individuals sign a petition to President Obama available at the IJM booth on website. Part of the petition reads:

We write to ask you to commit your second term to confronting and eradicating modern slavery at home and abroad.
Earlier in this decade, the United States led the world in a fight against the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.  President George W. Bush initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which saved tens of millions of lives.   We want to see similar presidential leadership and bipartisan collaboration on a comprehensive plan to end slavery.
Specifically, we urge you to designate 5 to 15 focus countries to fund and test robust initiatives to free children, men and women from labor and sexual exploitation and measurably reduce the incidence of human trafficking within specific geographic areas.  There are many initiatives around the world that are actually succeeding in bringing slaves to freedom and preventing the crime through effective law enforcement and deterrence.  We should study these successes and find ways to scale them up. We urge you to budget for a Presidential Fund to Eradicate Slavery, and ask that you make slavery eradication a diplomatic priority in every country where it exists.
While slavery is illegal everywhere, we still need to build the political will to make this commitment to freedom real. It is time to proclaim emancipation for all by the end of your term and bring an end to slavery in our lifetime.

For the full text and to sign the petition to ask the president to help make freedom real, go to:

“There’s never a choice made for a woman in a vacuum. There are always outside influences.” - Elaine Russo

The culture a woman is born into sets the standards, the mores, and effects the decisions she can and cannot make, whether it's going to school, her relationships, building a family, if she works or not, where she's allowed to work, what basic freedoms she may have, etc. So if you are like me and were born into a liberal middle-class white family in suburban New York, it is a given that you will get a primary education, pursue college, and work towards some sort of career. Even this promising path doesn’t guarantee complete freedom from gender inequality or violence against women. In the United States, 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I recently read that in India the number is as many as 1 in 2. Every other woman. Almost everyone in the world, including myself, knows women who have survived abuse. 

What kind of world are we creating for our daughters when in the 21st century a woman still has a significant chance of being sexually assaulted?

There are tons of articles and books out there on the current reality for women, so many in fact that it can be overwhelming and even desensitizing. But I truly believe that until we begin seeing woman as equal to men in value and worth, and treated with the dignity that God calls all His followers to provide to others, we have failed as a society.

Chai Ling, photo by Rich Marshall

Chai Ling, photo by Rich Marshall

We need to start thinking outside the box about what will influence girls to gain self-confidence, become educated, and work in jobs that will allow them to be accepted as equal partners with men in this world.

There certainly has been progress made in the last century, but there is so much more work to be done. If you are interested in creating a global society that supports women, check out these organizations that are already deep in the trenches:

There are also dozens of organizations listed on the Justice Conference's exhibitor page.

I will be back in a few days with reflections on how the speakers at the Justice Conference encouraged practical engagement in justice and finish up with how Rich and I are trying to make that a part of our every day life.

What can we do in our every day life to support equality for women and fight oppression?