No 12 September 1995.6
The UN Fourth World Conference on Women, and the NGO (non-governmental organizations) Forum recently ended in Beijing, China. More than 35,000 women from 175 countries took time to reflect on the possibility of "abundant life" for our world. They talked about contemporary political, economic, social and even religious conditions that sometimes suffocate life.
Women make up one half of humanity. But we may be in for a few surprises when we take a look inside any government or Church offices, where decisions are made. Women are rare, and men form the majority. This is certainly true in wealthy countries and even more so in the Third World. Faced with a situation that is so blatantly unjust, it is easy to understand the hope that has been ignited in women around the world by the Beijing Conference and the Forum.
The Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa (MSOLA) are particularly concerned about women's issues. As women, we feel for our sisters when they suffer injustice, and have at times had first-hand experience of it ourselves. The terrible situations so many women have to face are very real to us. This is especially true when it comes to African women, since we have worked in Africa for 125 years.
Anything that opposes life, that limits or diminishes it is a constant call to us to commit ourselves with our sisters in their efforts to seek justice and better living conditions. It is important that we do not become complacent about accepting the unacceptable. Cardinal Lavigerie, the founder of the Missionaries of Africa (White Sisters and White Fathers) fought a lifelong battle against slavery. He once said: I am a man, and injustice to other persons outrages my heart; I am a man, and oppression is an indignity to my nature. As the spiritual daughters of Lavigerie, we share his feelings of outrage and indignation.
The World Conference in Beijing and the Women's NGO Forum pointed out once again that it is economic policy that is impoverishing the Third World and especially African women and children. We have seen this; we do not need further convincing. However, we are starting to wonder if, in our journey together, we have given adequate consideration to economic and political impacts on social and religious life, or if we have in fact been accepting the unacceptable.
The participants at the Conference represented the women of the world who cannot speak for themselves. They talked about non-violence, about going forward and about the risk of confronting reality. They told us that the strength of every woman, from North or South, is her ability to give life in so many forms.
These silenced voices cried out to be heard. They belong to women like:
- Immaculata, age 15, sold by her father to a wealthy old merchant for a few dollars. She will be this man's fourth wife. She has no say in the matter.
- Restina, married for five years and childless, must accept a second wife in the household. She has no say in the matter.
- Josepha, a 40-year-old teacher, widowed, has lost all the property she acquired over the years with her husband because he did not make a will. She went to a traditional court and lost her case. She has no say in the matter.
- Maria cannot be the leader of a basic Christian community because she is a woman. With respect to this responsibility, she has no say in the matter.
- Beata from the Sudan, Amina from Mali and Elfrida from Egypt have to undergo excision. Even though they are the ones who will experience this cruelty in their flesh, they have no say in the matter.
At the same time, other women are beginning to remove the gag:
- Katarina is taking charge of health conditions in her village. Along with other women, she is mobilizing village chiefs, religious leaders and government officers.
- Olga and thousands of other women have formed groups to talk about their problems and find solutions. Together, they feel stronger and more confident. They want to break the image of women as property, women as submissive to their husbands, women as inferiors.
- Myriam and thousands of other young women dream of equality because they are getting the same education as the boys at school. As a result, they will have access to equal opportunities in the society of tomorrow.
- Malika, a Muslim Algerian, wrote to a missionary sister: I wouldn't be what I am today if I hadn't met you. The abundant life you gave me fills me with hope despite the present chaos in my country.
As Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, we are very interested in the results of the Beijing Conference. Right from the very start, we felt a certain hopefulness in the air at this assembly, where women were speaking up for themselves.
We think that real power- sharing between men and women will be one of the major forces for change in the world of tomorrow.
What we hope for is this:
- knowing that women already support three-quarters of the subsistence economy in Africa, we would like them to become more and more aware of the role they play in society and to demand society's recognition of this role;
- knowing that women are in general more concerned about justice, tolerance, peace and solidarity, we hope the gains they have made under the Charter of Human Rights will not be taken away from them.
- knowing that the constant and growing burden of organized poverty weighs more heavily on women than on men, we hope that the gap will close more and more between wealthy nations such as Canada and poor nations.
- knowing that in general AIDS is creating more victims among African women because of their inferior status and their lack of education, we hope that national leaders and the international community will increase their efforts to raise awareness and eliminate spread of the disease.
As MSOLAs, women, religious and missionaries, living in international communities, we are well placed to influence values, structures and openness to the world, both here and abroad. Women's issues have always been central to our mission in Africa. We know that educating a woman is educating an entire people. Promoting women's rights is becoming a global priority. And it goes hand in hand with promoting human rights.
We know that the road ahead is a long one before we perceive all the implications of real and constructive feminism on "abundant life" within the Churches and within humanity. Men of goodwill will have an important contribution to make.
It is with hope and enthusiasm that we embark on this ongoing process, because our God is the God of Life.
Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa
by Gaby Lepage, MSOLA