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Women share their stories at UN event

 
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5:00 P.M. EST Feb. 24, 2011 | NEW YORK (UMNS)



From left, Taurai Sandra Chinyerere of Zimbabwe; Finda Quiwa, a regional missionary based in Sierra Leone; and Fea Elizabeth Saffa of Sierra Leone are part of the UMW delegation. A UMNS photo by Linda Bloom.
From left, Taurai Sandra Chinyerere of Zimbabwe; Finda Quiwa, a regional missionary based in Sierra Leone; and Fea Elizabeth Saffa of Sierra Leone are part of the UMW delegation. A UMNS photo by Linda Bloom. View in Photo Gallery

Taurai Sandra Chinyerere is a model of what young African women can achieve, but she’s learned that some in her society do not appreciate her gifts.

When the church youth leader decided to study information technology at a local college in Harare, Zimbabwe, she was discouraged at every turn. “Why are you doing that course?” people would ask. “That is meant for men.”

She continued to pursue her studies, thanks to the support of her family, but others dropped out. “In my final year, I was the only girl left in my class,” she said.

The 26-year-old United Methodist is among the women sharing stories, advice and solidarity during the Feb. 22–March 4 meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. The United Methodist Women’s 20-member ecumenical delegation to the meeting includes 12 women from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

That group includes regional missionaries, students and representatives of partner agencies or local congregations. “One of the goals for this year is to build local grassroots advocacy,” said Tatiana Dwyer, an executive with UMW’s administrative arm, the Women’s Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

United Methodists have a decades-long involvement with the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, now in its 55th year, working with Ecumenical Women and other nongovernmental partners.

Women’s Division executive, elmira Nazombe, who has helped organize United Methodist participation in recent years, noted that the experiences of young women like Chinyerere demonstrate the need to continue to promote the advancement of women.

“The stories that people are telling here make it clear the battles are not won,” Nazombe said.

Access to education a priority

This year, the United Methodist-owned building across the street from the United Nations — the Church Center for the United Nations — is more crowded than usual during the two-week event because U.N. renovation work has restricted access for nongovernmental organizations.



United Methodists are among those attending the 55th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. A web-only UN photo by Devra Berkowitz.
United Methodists are among those attending the 55th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. A web-only UN photo by Devra Berkowitz.

Delegates flock to the church center for daily morning worship in the chapel and a revolving schedule of panel discussions, including four co-sponsored by UMW on the right to education; the relationship between gender, race and class and educational opportunities; violence against women; and the rights of domestic workers.

The “priority theme” of this year’s commission — “access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science and technology” — seems tailor-made for Chinyerere, who had to take a job as a receptionist first before the company where she is employed recognized her skills and promoted her to one of its two information-technology specialist positions.

Since then, she has been accepted into a degree program for information technology at the University of South Africa, but she cannot afford the fees. When she asked her employer for financial assistance, he agreed to pay — if she switched to business administration, a more suitable field, in his opinion, for a woman.

Chinyerere has resisted giving up what she has “a passion for” and called on other women to do the same. “If we join hands together as women…we’re going to prove them wrong, that we can do it.”

Launch of UN Women

One of the commission’s achievements has been the creation of UN Women, a new entity for gender equality and women’s empowerment within the United Nations, being formally launched this week. The agency’s executive director, Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, spoke at the Feb. 22 opening session.



Emma Cantor (left), a Women’s Division regional missionary from the Philippines, and Indriani Bone, a Methodist pastor from Indonesia, have networked together in Asia. A UMNS photo by Linda Bloom.
Emma Cantor (left), a Women’s Division regional missionary from
the Philippines, and Indriani Bone, a Methodist pastor from Indonesia, have networked together in Asia. A UMNS photo
by Linda Bloom. View in Photo Gallery

“This commission is a forum for each of you to share your innovations, your best practices and experiences about what works and how the policy and legal reforms you secure are contributing to concrete changes in the lives of women and girls, as well as of men and boys,” she told delegates.

But progress toward gender equality and women’s empowerment “is uneven and fragile,” she acknowledged. “Discrimination and inequality are the problem — women are part of the solution, and we must fully tap women’s potential and creativity for a better future,” Bachelet said.

Cecilia Castillo Nanjari, a Chilean Pentecostal who has been working in Brazil as coordinator of the gender program for the Latin American Council of Churches, was thrilled to be able to greet her former president and personally present her with a postcard from Ecumenical Women with “talking points” for the commission meeting.

The UMW delegate said she was amazed by the reaction of governmental representatives to Bachelet and UN Women. “What struck me … was the commitment and the support that everyone expressed,” she explained.

Training for political involvement

Empowerment for women can take many forms, as speakers pointed out at the Feb. 22 UMW-sponsored program on the right to education.

Fea Elizabeth Saffa comes from the diamond-mining Kono District in Sierra Leone where money is prized above education and women are encouraged to seek rich husbands rather than empower themselves. But an organization she leads called the “50/50 Group of Sierra Leone” offers training for girls and women with a particular aim at involving them in politics and governance.



Ilia Vasquez Gaston of Puerto Rico; Roseangela Oliveira, regional missionary for Latin America and the Caribbean; and Cecilia Castillo Nanjari of Chile are attending the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. A UMNS photo by Linda Bloom.
Ilia Vasquez Gaston of Puerto Rico; Roseangela Oliveira, regional missionary for Latin America and the Caribbean; and Cecilia Castillo Nanjari of Chile are attending the U.N. Commission on
the Status of Women. A UMNS photo by Linda Bloom.
View in Photo Gallery

“It’s only when you’re in politics that you can address the issues of women and girls,” explained Saffa, a UMW leader.

Many of the delegates in the audience — from countries as diverse as Tanzania, China, Nigeria, Uganda and New Zealand — identified so much with her message that some joined in as she completed her closing sentence: “When you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

Sometimes, empowerment means working around restrictions. As a Methodist pastor in Indonesia, the Rev. Indriani Bone can practice, but not share, her faith in predominantly Muslim nation. But she and her fellow pastors have found other ways to assist women and children. One pastor serving a church in a remote village, for example, started both a preschool and a literacy program for women over 50 in the community.

Emma Cantor, a United Methodist deaconess from the Philippines and regional missionary for Asia, has collaborated with Bone to organize a women’s work committee in Indonesia. In 2007, some 500 women gathered to discuss theology and the role of women in the church.

Another UMW-related connection brought Ilia Vasquez Gaston of Puerto Rico, who is currently completing a doctoral dissertation on work, gender and subjectivity, to the Commission on the Status of Women.

A pastor’s wife and general coordinator of the violence against women prevention program within the 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico, she is hoping to gather tools and strategies to advance a gender issues curriculum for her country’s educational system.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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