January 28, 2018

Preached by Julia Rao on January 28, 2018.

Isaiah 58: 6-10
Psalm 8
Ecclesiastes 4: 10-12
Luke 10: 30-37

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Good morning everyone.  My name is Julia Rao and I’m here on behalf of PWSD.  It’s my privilege to be here in Saskatoon for my first time, coming from Toronto, where our offices are and where I was born and raised.  I’m here today to share a little bit about the work that PWSD does around the world and the work that we do that we are only able to do with the help of our constituency, the Presbyterian Church.  The work of PWSD is rooted in the Christian values of creating a more compassionate, sustainable and just world.  The mission is to respond in solidarity to the most pressing needs globally.  This response ranges from emergency food distribution during disasters, like the one in Haiti.  In that case there was a hurricane in the Caribbean and there have been more hurricanes this summer and so we also responded in Cuba this year.   We also respond to prolonged conflicts, so you may know that there is a conflict in Syria and South Sudan where they are doing food aid distributions currently.  In terms of more sustainable solutions and long-term practices we have a network of local partners who develop targeted and long-term solutions to solve roots issues of poverty.

I work in Central America and South Asia but now that I’m in the senior role I’m doing a little more of the global work.  I’ll give you some examples of that sort of work that is a little bit more sustainable, a little bit more long term.

We have agri-ecological projects, so we are still working in food security but teaching farmers more sustainable techniques such as conservation agriculture, where they are learning to work in water scarce areas.  We have projects like that in Malawi and in Nicaragua.

We also do micro-financing for women’s groups, or self help groups where women come together in small circles and put in a small amount of money into a pot, or into their own kind of bank you might say, and from that they are able to leverage the capital that they have as a group and are able to start small businesses, and with our partners, we provide training not only in how to manage the money but in different techniques that they can use to start new businesses.

We also have large scale projects with maternal, newborn, and child health.  These projects are working with local partners to establish improved hospital facilities, training doctors, so that the focus would be on maternal health, and newborn and children where around the world we have very high rates of mortality.  We have a project like that happening right now in Afghanistan and it’s a multi-year large scale project and we get funding from Global Affairs Canada which is Canada’s humanitarian aid arm of the federal government.

I have had the great fortune of visiting and meeting our partners around the world, and also the participants who benefit from the programming and who feel the support and hope coming all the way from Canada. They too are inspired by God’s promise of an abundant life and they too deserve this and know that they deserve this as a basic human right despite the scarcity that they experience in such a resource rich world.

As we respond to the world’s pain and despair we bear witness to the love of God among us.  We believe deeply that injustice and inequality is an affront to the will of God and that our involvement in that compassionate ministry, with people throughout the world is an imperative of the Gospel.  Jesus taught his disciples to love one another, to love their neighbors, and strangers.  He taught us of the oneness of all and the idea that we are all holy.  This is not an abstract concept.  It actually has concrete action that we enact daily along with our partners and through PWSD.  This involves feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, protecting the vulnerable, healing the sick, and standing up against injustice.  Although this may seem like an impossible task, in a world with overwhelming injustice and poverty, and it may seem that these past few years have been a little worse than others, but I’m here today to share some good news with you.  We are doing the work each day, and although the work is small, we build it up piece by piece with love, compassion and solidarity through partnership and service to those most in need of help.  I’m here today to share some of the concrete work that is changing not only the lives of individual women but is also changing some of the societal norms around gender and violence against women.  I’m not sure how many people know about the WMS project this year which is promoting specific projects in Haiti.  It’s the project on gender-based violence in Haiti.  We work with a partner called ‘Partners in Health’ in Haiti and while they have several different projects, we just wanted to highlight this one in particular because it is being sponsored by the WMS.  A group of women just went there on a solidarity mission to see what is happening in the country and to see what the partner is doing on the ground so I wanted to give a little bit more information about this project in particular but also to let you know that we do have other projects going on in Haiti.

I want to touch on the idea, that with so much going on in the world and so many barriers to overcome I really like this quote that I keep close to me when problems seem insurmountable.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Meade

With this in mind I will give you a little context about the project that I am presenting today.  As I’ve mentioned, in Haiti we are partnered with an incredibly solid group called ‘Partners in Health’.  They have global programming but they started in Haiti.  The partner is actually called “Zanmi Lasante” which is the translation in Creole.  They have been working for more than 25 years in Haiti to improve women’s quality of life by providing comprehensive community based care in rural Haiti.  Unlike the majority of NGO’s in Haiti, they actually work alongside the government and the public health sector and so boost the credibility of a very weak governing structure and weak infrastructure. In Haiti, if you go to hospital you actually have to bring your own supplies.  If you were going into the hospital to give birth you would have to bring your own bed sheets and saline solution.  The Partners in Health branch  based in the U.S. is a global organization, they have additional funding, but they have chosen to work in the public hospitals which I find very impressive, and they give credibility and strength to what is generally seen as a bankrupt and weak system.  As a partner I find them to be one of the strongest and most effective.

They operate several different programs within the state run hospitals and they help bolster the health sector so that all Haitians have access to quality health care.

Although they have a myriad number of projects the one that I would like to focus on today is directed towards a deep rooted and mostly clandestine problem not only in Haiti, but all over the world, gender based violence.

To begin, we have to define what gender based violence is.  Often, gender based violence and violence against women are used interchangeably, and you can do this, but it is important to note that the concept of gender based violence highlights the concept that the violence against women is an expression of power inbalances between men and women where male dominance, anger and oppression is used as a tool to oppress and subjugate.  As such, looking at this project in that context this isn’t just a women’s problem that has to be addressed, but it is a societal problem that must be looked at by changing norms, by changing cultural mores that currently allow oppression and inequality to be perpetuated through violence and the fact that a lot of people just don’t talk about it.

Although women in Haiti are known as the central pillars of the family and community, they are also the most at-risk members for violence; physical, sexual, and otherwise.  Access to care, health, psycho-social, and legal remedies are limited by a lack of resources, a lack of political will, a very insecure economy, and gender power imbalances.  This project tries to remedy the weak links by creating a more holistic program.  The first priority of this project is to protect the women who have been victims of violence.  This is done through medical support and through psycho-social therapy.  If they come in and have been identified as victims of violence they will be given longer term support and therapy.  The women are encouraged to join support groups and their families are asked to join in a conversation of how they can be protected in the long run.

The next step is to involve the judicial system.  Women are counseled about their options and are encouraged to press charges.  Generally, this never happens.  Generally, in the past the cases were never identified as abuse and women just went back, and the cycle continued.  This also happened because the police generally weren’t on board with prosecuting and pursuing legal action, so police are now being given sensitivity training in order to learn a little bit more about the importance of protecting the victim first, and not the accused.  More and more cases are now reported and data is now being collected instead of cases just being swept under the rug.  We are now seeing a decrease in the impunity for the perpetrators.

Zamni Lasante also trains community health workers and educators to go to the areas where violence occurs and raises awareness about human rights, particularly the right to safety and freedom for women.

There is now a concentrated effort between the hospitals, women’s rights organizations, judicial and police systems to keep watch on the situation and also to punish the perpetrators.  Obviously most of the information that comes out about the women is confidential but I can share how many women have expressed gratitude for being seen and heard and how many have forged relationships with each other and with staff and who now have better expectations for themselves and for their children.

This is a destigmatizing process when women share their stories and it is emancipatory when they know that they have a whole community that will protect them and care for them.  Before, women expressed shame, felt shunned and at fault for the abuse.  Slowly this perspective is shifting and the blame is being lifted and being shifted away from the victims and towards the victimizers.  We are seeing this more and more over the world.  For example, the ‘Me Too’ movement is an example of it happening in the western world, but it’s a dialogue that we are seeing more and more and is a new dialogue that is putting women’s voices first.  This allows for new perspectives of abuse and takes a global problem out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

I would just like to share a quick letter that one of the women who participates in the program wrote to Zamni Lasante and the hospital.  Her name is Rosaleen and she was with a group of women who were sexually assaulted one early morning, and because of the outreach that they do in the communities these victims of violence knew that they could go to the hospital to get support.  She wrote this letter shortly afterwards:

After I was attacked I felt very distraught and I thought that my life was over.  I went to the Health Center where the attending nurse and doctor welcomed me, taking care of me emotionally and medically.  They listened to me and counselled me.  Later they ran lab tests and the results showed normal.  I am grateful for the Center’s welcome.  Every time I went there the staff always took care of me.  They used encouraging words so that I could avoid letting what happened to me destroy me.

I really like this testimonial, and it reminds me of the scripture that we read earlier from Isaiah because the totality of this project describes what Isaiah was saying and how we need to try and create the world that God intended and the idea that it should be similar to what God has for us in heaven.  And that there are those of us who must work hard every day to push back against hatred and sadness so that more light can come in.  Isaiah describes a picture of what God’s rule looks like and what the kingdom of God looks like where practices of justice and mercy, kindness and peace are the order of every day on earth.  This is a vision of our world as a peaceful kingdom, a world of neighbourliness where no one is threatened and no one is at risk.  No one is in danger, because all are safe, all are valued, all are honored, and all are cared for.  This community of peace and safety and vibrant life can, and will come, but it is up to us to continue working at home in our own backyards because this happens here, and all around the world to break down the cycles of violence and power.

I hope that what you hear today is encouraging and hopeful despite the sadness and heaviness of this theme.  I know that oftentimes I feel despair and hopelessness when I am working, especially with this theme, but also others.  Hearing stories of abuse can always be very disheartening and when I work alongside these women who come from such different worlds from my own who face challenges that I can’t even imagine I remind myself of this quote by activist Audre Lorde:

“I’m not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

I will leave you with that thought because I think that when we understand the inter-connectivity of one another, when we think in terms of justice and mercy for everyone we will increase our courage to reach out to those who are hurting and this is an act of love, not only for others but also an act of love for ourselves.