Poverty and injustice discriminate. And the health and well-being of women around the world suffer because of it. Many of us who live in privilege do not worry about their daughters being raped during war or being forced into prostitution. Many of us who live in privilege do not think about injustice and inequality at all, because it doesn’t seem to be a necessary or pressing concern. We are in a place to make the choice between apathy and becoming aware. But the vast majority of people who live in poverty do not have that choice to make, because the structures that surround them or the people who are in power over them have already made another choice: to force their advantage.
I do not mean to deny the agency of people living in poverty, no, far from that. What I do mean to do is to ask why injustices, largely against women and children, are allowed and at times even encouraged. I mean to ask what systemic and theoretical structures exist that perpetuate harmful perceptions and actions about and against certain groups of people?
Why do women form the majority of heterosexual cases of HIV/AIDS? A number of factors might explain the growing number of women who are infected with the virus. In many places, girls are pressured to be married young, often to older, more experienced men who may already have multiple wives. Typically, these girls also live in places where educational and economic opportunities for them as women are extremely limited. Even if they are fortunate enough to know about the danger of HIV/AIDS, their cultural tradition may not protect their rights or provide them the choice to either abstain from sex or request to use a condom if they suspect their partner is infected. In areas of political unrest, many women are raped in war crimes, being made susceptible to HIV infection against their own will.
Direct correlations can be made between the spread of HIV/AIDS and human trafficking, particularly sexual trafficking. Women who have been abducted into the illegal sex industry do not have the choice of whom they will be with, and are often at risk for violent sex. Many people who are trafficked are lured with the false promise of a good job or an educational prospect. Once in captivity, many are brought across borders where they know no one and do not speak the language. They are isolated from outside contact and warned not to plan escape; threats are made against them and their families in order to maintain submission. Because of the coercion and deception involved, the estimated 12.3 million people who have been trafficked are considered victims of modern-day slavery. Lest the question arises of how so many fall for “too good to be true” offers, it should be recognized that the hopelessness of poverty breeds desperation and an ambition to do anything that might make life better.
In speaking of the vulnerable, we might also consider the millions of young girls who undergo what is commonly labeled “female circumcision.” However, circumcision is probably not an accurate term, considering the health risks involved and the pain that it causes in sexual intercourse, childbirth, and even urination. For this reason, the practice is more appropriately called female genital mutilation, or female genital cutting/modification, out of respect for those who have had the procedure done. While it is practiced for a number of different reasons, including as a rite of passage, most cultures that perform the cutting acknowledge that it is done in order to control a woman’s sexual desire and keep her chaste.
The work of many organizations that directly fight injustice is essential in these times. So also, is the work of CBE. It is especially relevant for vulnerable women living in poor countries, because the last thing that those who are living in situations of oppression need from the church is more male hierarchy. If the church promotes patriarchy, then what could ever free these women from the injustice in which they are caught? If the church excuses, and even advocates for hierarchy, then the church may have little theological or theoretical basis upon which to call into question the structures of injustice that women face all over the world because of their gender. Patriarchy is incompatible with justice for women.
Injustices against women are not just isolated incidents; rather, they result from many societal and even theological factors. These are interconnected issues, linked by the views that many around the world hold that women are second best, meant to be dominated or needing to be controlled by men. CBE is necessary in order to set a precedent of dignity and equality of women and men in places where people of privilege live, as well as, and perhaps even more urgently, where people live in poverty, desperation, and vulnerability.
So how can those who lead lives of privilege stand by and claim ignorance or apathy? Will they? Or will they — will you and I — do what we can with the gifts, tools and influence that we have in order to change the minds of those in power, change the structures that oppress, and change the lives of the hurting?
Being an Agent of Change
Step 1: Educate yourself about injustice against women.
Step 2: Tell others.
Step 3: Support organizations that do the work.
Available resources for education:
Good News About Injustice, by Gary Haugen
Cut Flowers: Female Genital Mutilation and a Biblical Response, by Sandy Willcox
“Sexual Exploitation and Violence toward Women: Global and Local Concerns,” recording by Ellen Armstrong
“Helping Christians Set Trends for Oppressed Women in India,” recording by Ellen Alexander & Beulah Wood
“Sexual Trafficking, Prostitution, and the Global Sex Industry,” recording by Lisa Thompson
World Hope International
Editor’s note: This is a condensed summary of Leah’s “As We Speak” lecture series, originally presented at Cornerstone Music Festival, July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 2006. She addressed injustice against women in the topics of HIV/AIDS, Human Trafficking, and Female Genital Mutilation.