I hear the soft murmur of women
Their word of joy and tenderness
I hear the sigh of women
and their muffled groans.
I hear the cry of women
Their rage and their revolt
Cries of exhilaration
I hear the fear of women
Fear of threatening lane-ways
Fear of violent homes.
I hear women's songs of hope
Their voices harmonious and strong
Their laughter overcomes, burst forth, flourishes."
These words are taken from A Bread and Roses Celebration for the World March of Women, October, 2000.
The World March is an historic world-wide grassroots campaign calling the world's attention to women's poverty, violence against women and the structures that keep them poor, excluded, and violated. Women from 153 countries, organized in 4,190 groups, have joined the call for change.
Most of the issues enunciated in March's manifesto resonate with the social teachings of the Church, as we observe in official church documents a positive attitude toward the emancipation of women and support for their demands for dignity and equality, in both the public and private spheres of life. We also find that the question of the place of women is directly related to that of justice and the building of a more humane world. Women are both the beneficiaries of this search for justice and active participants in the transformation of an unjust world.
However, there are some real, or at least perceived, troublesome planks in the March's agenda.. One of these is the meaning of "a woman's right to control her body and reproductive function." This is a loaded political expression! For some, it is code for abortion or access to abortion. Others understand it to encompass a broad set of concerns of women for an end to forced sterilizations, genital mutilation and forced marriage. For many of us, the first meaning is totally unacceptable, while we enthusiastically endorse the second understanding.
Another section has to do with lesbians and gays. As I read this section, it does not call for approval of lesbian and gay sexual activities, which would be problematic. However, they are demands that people never be stoned, jailed, refused housing or work, or asylum if they are refugees, or denied any other human right because of their sexual orientation. This is consistent Catholic social teaching.
During the course of wrestling with these issues, and sometimes with the persons holding opposite views, I had the opportunity to listen to two African women. They were MarieAnge Lukiana and Elise Muhimizi from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who stopped in Canada on their way home from the recent United Nations Conference, Bejing +5, held in New York.
As they described their life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I furiously tried to take notes as they shared their experiences. The rebels now control most of the country. Tens of thousands have been displaced internally, and hundreds of thousands have sought refuge elsewhere. Women are raped systematically. Often their husbands will not have them back and they are left alone and pregnant. Many consider suicide. This too is a form of genocide.
There have been instances of women being buried alive. Women flee in the night in the face of advancing armies with nothing but the clothes on their back. Children are lost alone the away. They arrive at rivers and can't swim. The advancing soldiers not only rape the women, they set fire to the villages and destroy everything in their path.
Elise said: "That's why I stopped my studies and changed my career. I saw the need to organize women to stop all of this." She is now the National Co-ordinator of Conafed, a coalition of 300 NGOs, which promotes women's legal equality and involvement, advocates for peace and the development of educational and economic training opportunities.
MarieAnge, Co-ordinator of Cause commune, a group that lobbies for justice and represents 250 women's groups united to deal with basic human needs, where there is no functioning government, explained that 70% of the women are illiterate. That does not mean that they are not strong leaders, wise women and able to speak well and promote change.
Zeroing in on the meaning of the World March of Women, MarieAnge said: "For us it's the fight against poverty among women. War is everything that makes this worse. We have created our own lobby called "2000 reasons to walk". War is at the root of all our problems right now. We have called for a rally for October, but the President of the Republic has criticized us. He has challenged why we are speaking out. But with three-quarters of the country taken over by fighting, the government has failed. And women will find new ways to have an even larger voice. We are organizing a Conference of African Women for Peace. Some of us have already been imprisoned for acting for peace. We won't make it without international solidarity."
Elise explained the importance of the March in a different way. "We women talk about social need but the United States talks about economic interests. We denounce foreign armies fighting on our territories for diamonds. But the world doesn't denounce this. We need stronger education of the North American people. The US lobby is stronger than our lobby. Your people don't know about atrocities. We women do not count the ethnicity, whether Hutu or Tutsi. We have suffered so many massacres. We are not a violent people. We hate violence. It is the systematic destruction of African societies. Globalization - we are lost in it. Nothing can happen without peace. Poverty can't be conquered without peace. We are a rich country."
At the end of the day, what I found most amazing and refreshing was that these women never raised the abortion question, nor did they get into the gay-lesbian debate.
☩ Frederick Henry