The World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) Regional Women’s Program
Dinah, Tamar, the unnamed concubine "belonging" to a Levite, Jephhah's daughter, Vashti, Suzannah-what do all these women have in common? They are all women in the Bible who faced terror and some of the most horrific kinds of violence against women known to mankind. When we ignore these stories and yet continue to pass the same Bible on to generations, we send a subtle message that women are not equal to men, that there was a time when violence against women was justified and that women could be rightfully treated as objects and chattel in the eyes of God.
With the help of funding from United Methodist Women, a brave group of women in the Asia-Pacific region are addressing, mourning, challenging and re-defining biblical "her-story." The World Student Christian Federation (WSCF)– a global federation of Christian students committed to dialogue, social justice and peace–has brought about 60 young women together every year since 1991 to re-read the bible from critical feminist perspectives, to discuss and share their own life experiences and common issues, and to challenge and transform attitudes, structures and systems in church and in society that limit women's progress and leadership. These workshops are organized by the Regional Women's Program (RWP), which is an arm of the WSCF Asia-Pacific regional group.
Even though the Regional Women's Program is a relatively small training program, its impact and reach should not be underestimated. Each year, the young women leaders who receive training go back to their schools, churches and communities to organize women's programs and workshops, which are attended by about 30 local young women. An estimated 600 young women per year in the Asia-Pacific region receive training and exposure on issues of women and gender.
Regional Women's Program Workshops
In 2011, the Regional Women's Program offered three workshops - in Sri Lanka, Japan, and Thailand-each attended by young women from South Asia and Oceania. Participants are usually high-school or college students or youth groups that are part of local WSCF groups called Student Christian Movements (SCMs).
Workshops usually start with "Sharing Her Story." Participants are given an opportunity to share their life stories, experiences and struggles. An unburdening of souls often occurs during this session as the young women release difficult life stories of violence and discrimination. For many participants, this is the only place they can share their experiences because they are not welcomed or encouraged in their communities due to cultural beliefs. The women then critically analyze their stories by discussing how socially constructed factors such as religious teachings, traditions, customs, culture, race, nationality and sexuality have affected their lives.
After sharing their personal experiences, the participants study the experiences of women in the workshop's host country. They read and reflect together on stories of violence against women there and analyze the factors contributing to the violence. Often their personal stories are not much different from those told by women around the world. They learn that gender is not the only cause of violence against women, but multifaceted factors such as culture, tradition, religion, class, caste, race, ethnicity, patriarchy, hierarchy, nationality, education and age also play a role.
Another powerful segment of the workshops is Bible study. Participants search the Bible for examples of text that is used to oppress and control women. Facilitators explain that reading such texts reflects and reproduces socially constructed gender identities and roles, which become the substance of sociocultural, political and theological discourse. Facilitators then help participants to deconstruct and reconstruct the text.
Through such activities, RWP teaches young women how their self-worth is often constructed with denial, hate, repression and alienation. They help women to begin the process of self-love, self-realization, self-affirmation and self-reclamation. Participants are encouraged to develop their own plan for how they are going to determine their identity and how they are going to affirm themselves as an act of commitment.
Many participants find these workshops empowering, challenging and liberating. Many affirmed that they would continue the process of rereading the Bible together from feminist perspectives in their local groups. The workshops are also a source of personal transformation. Many are now promoting gender justice by organizing training programs and speaking out in their own communities.
I am Phan Dara, a young woman 29 years of age, currently working with a volunteer group called the Steering Committee of Interfaith Peace Building for Youth and an active member of the women's program of Cambodian Student Christian Mission (CSCM). Here I am sharing my real- life story from the depths of my heart.
After the Pol Pot regime, my family moved to live in refugee camp near the Khmer-Thai border. I was born on the way to the refugee camp, in 1980.
My parents got separated when I was a year old. We lived in poor conditions, and my mother couldn't feed my siblings anymore, so she decided to send me to live with her brother and sister-in-law with the hope that I would at least have a better life, since my adopted parents were rich.
In reality, things turned out different for me. I was never sent to school nor treated or fed well by my adopted parents. I saw other children going to school, and I too wanted to join them to go school. So I asked my adopted parents to send me to school, but they refused. After constantly pleading with them, they agreed-with the condition that I must finish all the household work before I go to school. I was only seven years old at the time.
During 1991 and 1992, the United Nations Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) sent the Khmer people who lived in the refugee camp back to Cambodia. On December 22, 1992, my family returned to Cambodia, which was a terrible experience for me because I left my home, school and friends. Then I lived with my mother's sister and her daughter. After the sixth grade, they told me it was enough study for a woman because a woman is meant to do the household work and bear children after marriage.
At 14, my aunt asked me to sell fruits, fish, and vegetables in the market because their financial condition was not good. My uncle started torturing me and even attempted to sexually abuse me. I talked with my aunt about what he did to me, but she, herself a woman in a patriarchal family, was also helpless and cried for me. Instead of raising this issue, she suggested that I keep silent. She said, "As a woman, you should not tell this thing to another person. You also can't say anything against him because he is your father." She taught me women have no authority over men. Women are considered unclean, so they can't question men, especially older men. A woman's identity is to remain silent and do housework.
When I was introduced to CSCM, I engaged with other students by participating in the workshops and activities. I started to learn new things from different perspectives and faiths. Through my involvement with CSCM, I was sent to attend women's programs and workshops in Korea and Indonesia. These have enabled me to share my experiences with other young women. When they heard my story and showed their solidarity, I felt empowered.
During the workshop process, I was able to understand the causes of violence against women. After listening other women's stories, I felt liberated and more strengthened by the support of the women from different parts of Asia. I was convinced that I am not weak and that I must speak out for myself and join other women. I came back full of hope and spirit and decided to join the Steering Committee of Interfaith Peace Building for Youth. By taking part with CSCM and the Steering Committee, I have a chance to learn from other religious perspectives and political overviews. I have a chance to facilitate peace education training for six months within CSCM. I hope that I have another chance to join hands with CSCM in working toward transformation for a just and peaceful society.