The number 107 million launched off the pages of the Sunday New York Times Magazine like a missile exploding across my conscience. Is it possible that there are currently 107 million women who have gone missing because of rape, torture, infanticide, starvation and neglect? In the 21st Century, modernity has permitted the enslavement and abuse of women at a rate that numbs the imagination. 130 million women around the world have been subjected to genital cutting. In Ghana, 21% of young women surveyed reported that their sexual initiation was by rape. 1 In the midst of the genocides that have occurred since the holocaust — Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor and most recently, Darfur the trafficking and slaughter of women overshadows the numbers found in these political nightmares. And even the genocides of the past 50 years — one wonders how many of the victims were women or victims because they were women?
Eleven trips to sub-Saharan Africa in the past two years have brought these numbers into sharp relief. Focusing on HIV/AIDS and the pandemic that his killing 3,000 children a day on the continent of Africa one sees the devastation this disease has had on the women of these cultures. When men acquire the “sickness” the women nurse them to health or stay at their side until the disease is abated or consumes the men. When women acquire “dirty blood” the men leave and abandon them in pursuit of other women less dirty. Women living with HIV/AIDS are found living by themselves or in small support communities of other women living with the disease. Their survival is dependent upon a network of care supporters that roam the country side of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa providing access to precious ARVs or nutrition.
In the midst of this reality stands the Church. The Church, quite often is the only thing that prevents these survivors from falling off the face of the earth. However, one is forced to ask, to what extent has faith, the Church, the Mosque, the Synagogue or the traditional faith healer in villages across Africa contributed to this neglect and to the marginalization of women in all cultures? I continue to be outraged by a superficial theology that justifies an inferior status for women. Every church, every faith that “proof texts” its way across its scriptures justifying the exclusion of women or relegating them to the back pew of leadership should be called to repentance. Like the prophet Amos we should stand outside the city gates of religion and cry Woe to You for the sin that is gender discrimination. We must no longer tolerate governments and leaders that abuse and neglect our mothers and our sisters. These behaviors in policy, in practice and in belief are an abomination to God. The gender silos that once separated us were shattered in the biblical admonition — there is neither male nor female.
We must approach the institutions of our faith(s) and confront them and condemn them if necessary when they say no to a woman simply because of her gender. Faiths that exclude women and tolerate their abuse or submit them to torturous rituals and deny them voice in schools or pulpits should fall to their knees in repentance. As harsh as it may sound, these very acts are in solidarity with those that practice infanticide of young female babies, rape and torture of teenage girls and deny young women access to education. These gender biases permit the powerful to justify exclusion and when you can justify exclusion you are complicit in the marginalization and victimization of women.
In recent months the Obama administration, through their Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has catapulted this issue before the global community. Gender and women’s health issues are part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and in a new book soon to be published by Nicholas D. Kristof and his colleague and spouse, Sheryl WuDunn; they argue that women’s rights should be the “cause of our time.” I am perplexed that these movements are initiated by government and media. Where is the voice of the faith community? These women are our mothers and our sisters, they are our wives and our friends — the Church cannot remain silent but must set the example by removing any and all barriers to women’s access to all roles and responsibilities in the institutions of faith.
Any religious leader who advocates for gender exclusion in the full work of their faith is by definition a false prophet. Any religious tradition who dares to proclaim the Kingdom of God and discriminates against the full participation of women is by its action and definition a bearer of a false truth. The voices of 107 women have been silenced — their screams for help are the screams of our own mothers and sisters — we must all share in their voice and that voice must rise to a shout that will tumble the walls of exclusion that deny them safety, security, health, education and the joys of full participation in our global community.
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