Women at the UN say theology can be good for gender equality

By Ecumenical News International
November 24, 2009

In the continuing quest for gender equality in the world, a group of young women have been working at the United Nations to expand the message that theology which emphasises equality is essential to real progress -writes Peter Kenny.

A key driver of the process is Christine Housel, the global project manager of the Geneva-based World Student Christian Federation, who is currently at the United Nations in New York for a week of advocacy involving the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical organizations.

"In the current era, theology does not seem relevant to our real, daily lives," Housel said, in an interview with Ecumenical News International. "Theology can easily seem like something abstract and unrelated to us at best, or like a set of systems and beliefs that restrict and oppress at worst."

The group is called Ecumenical Women at the United Nations and before this week's New York meeting it said in a statement, "Women of faith are already at work, asking their governments to recommit to the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, a milestone human rights platform agreed upon at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women."

"Millions of women worked for years to create the Beijing Platform, but its goals have been eclipsed by other political agendas," said Emily Davila, chairperson of the ecumenical UN women's group, which is a faith-based coalition focusing on women's rights internationally. "We are calling on women of faith from around the world to come together in their churches and ask, 'Have these goals for women’s leadership, education and development been met in our communities?"

Housel told ENI, "What we are seeking to do is to ensure that our theology does not diminish but rather empowers women."

She cited the Geneva-based world federation, where she works, saying, "It has a 114-year history of grappling with the political, economic, and social issues of our day within a theological framework." There, Housel works with people such as Facia Boyenoh Harris, head of the Female Student Commission for the SCM in Liberia and others from many different countries.

"A conviction that God is real and seeks to partner with us in transforming injustice into just peace and fear into love, motivates the students and alumni of the federation. Therefore, theology is at the core of the spiral of analysis, action, and praxis for these leaders around the world," noted Housel.

She said that how prayers and reflections about God are formed, motivate people to take part in a continual transformation as individuals and as communities to be prophetic witnesses in church and society. "This is theology."

An example of the journey that women still face came from a group attending a conference late in October in Geneva in preparation for the 2010 Lutheran World Federation Assembly, its highest governing body. Participants at the conference called for greater efforts to ensure gender equity in the organisation's leadership and sensitivity to issues that affect women.

"We have gone backwards in the LWF," said the Rev Barbara Rossing, who is chairperson of the LWF's Programme Committee for Theology and Studies, and who teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. She explained that LWF delegations frequently did not respect the prescribed gender representation guidelines of the organisation that binds 69 million Lutherans.

Maria Jepsen of the North Elbian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany, who in 1992 became the first woman to become a Lutheran bishop, told the gathering, "We need a very good network of women and men who are open to women’s issues." Bishop Jepsen also said women need to be good in networking in churches as well as in society.

In September, three women who serve as presidents of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, expressed "considerable concern and great disappointment" about the lack of women in senior staff leadership positions in the world's biggest church grouping.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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