by Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda*
My life story embodies the essence of the Assembly theme: “make it happen”. Growing up as an orphan and as the last born child in a family of 11, I shared the pains and struggles of my mother’s the 27 years of life as a widow. Mine is the story of a rural and village girl, growing up in the middle of the war, surrounded by material poverty and yet living in the full embrace of spiritual riches and abundant love. My mother, was taken out of her grade 3 class in order to marry my father, she was barely 16 years old. She was denied the education she so thirsted for. She drew on her inner strength, reached out to friends, other women in the community and her local church to help her raise us, her children. It was not easy, she had little or no choices, options and opportunities, and yet she made it happen. She feed us, sent us to school and ensured we were able to stand on our two feet. Later in life, my mother buried some of her own children due to AIDS related illnesses, while she also cared for a daughter and son with mental health challenges. She found her voice, drew deeply from her inner strength, prayed, worked with her hands and networked, to make it all happen. Her story is my story, it’s your story and it’s a story of billions of other women across the world.
To her poverty did not mean lack of knowledge, wisdom or leadership. Poverty did not reduce her to a mere statistic, but she was among the many to be counted who baked the bread, served the bread and shared the bread. She co-created the miracle of feeding the multitudes. She made it happen. She reminded me often, in those moments of despair “You are a child of God and born in the image of the creator. You are as important as any other person. Stand up tall among others, even if you are walking bare feet and with no pant! For dignity is experienced within”.
The strength of her voice and the conviction of her spirit told me that she was determined to make it happen. Today, I stand before you, as an international human rights lawyer; the General Secretary of the World YWCA, leading our global movement’s work in 120 countries and reaching out to 25 million women and girls. My mother Rozaria, made it happen, feeding the multitudes with almost nothing, and yes at an invisible and unrecognised cost.
I ask though, what kind of miracles do need today? It was not easy for my mother to re-create this miracle of feeding multitudes with five loaves and two fish every day for 80 years of her life. Women like my mother are looking for a different kind of miracle, one in which they own the land, and the seed, to grow the wheat. They want to own the bakery, have the right to decide what type of bread to bake for the day, how many loaves to make, as they ensure nourishment for humanity.
Today, I am here, I am standing tall with my chest out, it’s all by the grace of God and the strength of a woman. When the going was tough we sang “Mwari Mubatsiri wangu”; in moments of sorrow, pain or celebration, we again sang “mwari mubatsiri wangu” and today I sing “mwari mubatsiri wangu”.
Thank you Yvette Richards, Harriet Olson, and all of you in this Assembly for honouring me girl from Magaya Village, for inviting me to this table to serve the multitudes with food that nourishes the work of the United Methodist women into the future. I bring with me to this Assembly my two fish and five loaves of bread ~ my lived experiences, thoughts, and ideas on how to advance the status of women and girls around the world.
I draw on the World YWCA’S 160 years of herstory, and its focused mission on leadership development for women and girls for COLLECTIVE ACTION, for a world of peace, justice, freedom, dignity, health and care for our environment. I share this moment also with the many YWCA members, volunteers, friends, supporters and sisters who are with us today, at this moment and in this Assembly!
I celebrate with you today. We celebrate that we multiply the fruits of our work together.
- I celebrate that we one family, women of faith, coming together in our ecumenical tent and deeply sharing in our commitment to advance the status of women and girls around the world. We share membership, values, liturgy and vision.
- I celebrate our collaboration and work together for many decades and counting, in places far and near. In the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and in Africa, as your strengthen the YWCAs’s work in communities with financial and technical resources, support girls and young women to get education opportunities. Yes, the work in Namibia, Palestine and my own country Zimbabwe.
- I celebrate your audacious and visionary leadership at the global level within the UN, our work together a ecumenical women with the UN Commission on the Status of Women; your leading coordination on gender and migrations and your willingness to embrace diversity and really seek to be global in your partnerships.
- I celebrate your stepping up as United Methodist women in bringing the voices of women within the difficult and yet importance space of church leadership. It was a treasure and a pleasure for me to work should by shoulder with you at the 2013 World Council of Churches Assembly, where together we signed a petition for the church to listen to the voices of Southern Korean women who were victims of sexual slavery during the second world war.
- I celebrate you for the UN Church Centre building at the UN in New York, the place women of the world claim as their own space. I walk into those offices with confidence, to be welcomed with full embrace and warmth by Carol, Titiana, Betty and Sung-Ok among other sisters; the same warmth and embrace I receive when I come to Riverside. Am sure this is the same embrace many women around the world experience when they come encounter the United Methodist women across the world.
My sisters and brothers; what is the world today, that world in which we are striving to make it happen?
- Feminisation of Poverty. We live in a world in which the majority of women and girls continue to experience poverty, exclusion and marginalization. Many women can barely feed their families and simply lick the spoon; a spoon they do not even own. It’s the women struggle to ends be it in Fiji, Solomon Islands, Zambia; Bangladesh, Korea o just here in Up State New York ~ jobs, child care, gender pay gap, homelessness, no social security in old age.
- Women’s Health. We live in a world in which women continue to die while giving birth to life. It is a world where the majority of people living with HIV who live with HIV are unable to access treatment. Women are denied their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Many women are denied the right and choice to decide how many children they can have, with whom and when.
- Unacceptable levels of violence against women; family violence, sexual abuse, harassment at the workplace, child marriage and sheer disrespect of women persist. Situations of conflict and natural disasters create extra vulnerabilities and risk.
- Education and Economic opportunities. Women and girls across the world continue to have limited access to education, training and economic opportunities. It’s not enough to have primary education. It’s no longer enough to be able to read A.B.C. Girls need access to affordable and quality secondary, tertiary and vocational education.
- A highly militarised world, where we are all impacted by conflict and wars. Just today and this day we have Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Ukraine, Central Africa republic, DRC and an unfolding deep crisis in South Sudan, and still women are still living the scars of the second world war. It’s a world in which our governments secretly vote huge budget to buy guns and helicopters for killing our sons, daughters and husbands; when our schools have no books, our hospitals have no medicine and our people have no jobs.
- Global Village: Making it happens, demands that we recognise the inter-connectedness of the world and our fragile relations around us. It’s a world of opportunities for possibilities for others but not all. A village characterised by migration, enabled by technology, with possibility of free flow of capital, talent, ideas, innovations and labour. And yet it’s a village with many check points and barriers such as migration policies and visa regulations which prohibit some members of this village the said freedom to be global citizens.
- Policy vs Rhetoric. We live in a world where we have baskets and baskets of policy statement, resolutions, treaties and commitments on women’s rights, gender equality and empowerment, and yet its world in which those baskets are half empty on implementation.
- Inequalities. Power, politics and poverty often results in more exclusion, discrimination, corrupt practices with huge impacts for women and girls. The digital divide, the class divide, the racial divide and the gender divide all create inequalities for women and girls around the world.
These are the real issues that women navigate each day, as they seek to claim their global citizenship and contribute to the wellbeing of humanity. The feeding of the multitudes, can only happen if and only when, we understand that the world is about all of US together, today, tomorrow and forever, Amen.
Yet and yet, we must continue to celebrate, never forget to celebrate in life. We celebrate the 1995 Beijing commitments on women. This conference reaffirmed the 1993 Vienna Human Rights Declarations that had confirmed that that women’ rights are human rights. At the Beijing conference Ms Hillary Clinton and other women of the world raised the bar for gender equality, peace and development. I was a slim, young woman, at the NGO tent and I am not sure how many of you remember seeing me there? We celebrate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a pillar treaty for women and girls around the world.
I join the voice of my YWCA USA sister in asking the question: When really is the US Government going to sign this treaty? Just as the US advocates for respect international human rights law to protect their citizens globally, I expect that my sisters in the US enjoy the same rights, as other women elsewhere.
My sisters and brothers, what then are the pathways for us to “make it happen” for women.
- Invest in women and girls. The demographic dividend is telling: The future is young and the future is female. The World YWCA in calling our governments to ensure clear commitments to gender quality and women’s rights, ending violence against women, and investing in young women and girls. Women’s economic, social and political empowerment is the real game changer, the lever and the key for achieving sustainable development. That should form the core of the new development agenda post 20, which the government are negotiating at the UN.
- Adopt a human rights based approaches, an approach that affirms and aligns our rights, our faith and our cultures. An approach that recognises women and girls persons with rights and voice and not just objects of charity and beneficiaries of programmes. A human rights based approach that demands the accountability of governments, faith communities, private sector, media and others to uphold the rights of women and girls. Culture, faith and traditions should not be abused and used to violate the human rights of women and girls.
- Commit to gender justice, in times of peace and in times of war. The 4 Ps in security resolution 1325 calls for prevention of conflict, participation of women in peace efforts; protection of women and integrating gender perspective in peace keeping.
- Apply intergenerational approach, that harnesses the creativity, innovations and experiences of women of all ages and invest in young women and girls, and harness the wisdom and experience of older women, as we foster the leadership of all women
- Create safe and inclusive spaces in provision of services, and for crucial conversations for policy changes including for such issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights
- Create and innovate to ensure sustainable resourcing of our work in communities. We can make it happen if the work of women like in communities is enabled and supported, for us to move from pilot projects and go to scale.
- Embrace change, embrace technology and ensure that no one is left behind.
The World YWCA is prioritising the following three issues and I invite you as the United Methodist Women to journey with us.
- Ending child, early and forced marriage ~ within a single generation. Each day 39,000 girls are forced into marriage about 14 million each year. Calling it marriage is actually giving a blessing sexual abuse, rape, abductions and modern day form of slavery. Stand with us, together we can MAKE THIS HAPPEN. We must end child marriage. I will be on my feet with you on this call, Yes, for the girls and women around the world, and also for my mother Rozaria.
- Ending violence against women and girls in peace time and in conflict situations. We have been on our feet since 1855 and will continue. The YWCA is stepping up its work on prevention of and support to survivors of violence against women and girls. We have to change the social norms that perpetuate these abuses and work for appropriate legislation, its implementation and accountability. We make a special today to stepping up our efforts in South Sudan. The Bentiu massacre this Monday is a tipping point and yet the unfolding horror remains invisible to many across the world. We must all work together to avert a genocide and ensure that women are in the decision making table.
- Resourcing work in communities. We must leverage significant support for women’s work in communities. The World YWCA’s Power to Change Fund enables us to give capacity building and catalytic grants to community interventions. It clear that communities need strategic, sustainable and quality partnerships and resources for the kind of long term change we are striving for. We can reach and impact millions of lives in communities, support the critical mass of young leaders and future leaders in our community, if we strategically collaborate. We are one family, one movement and one community. We are stronger together. We can make it happen
In conclusion, I remind you that as women of faith, we are the conscience of humanity. We connect the dots and weave the tapestry of life. Each one us in this room and many sisters around the world are changing lives and changing communities each day and every day. Your prayers and your solidarity, makes it all possible. Indeed I know that “mwari mubatsiri wangu”. You and I, together and in the presence of our Creator, must always stand with the multitudes, to be counted, to serve and to lead.
Thank you & God Bless You.
* General Secretary, World YWCA. Presentation Made at United Methodist Women’s Assembly, 2014. April 26, Kentucky, USA