Mission Giving Enables Young Women’s Workshop Experience in Asia
United Methodist Women’s continued support for the Regional Women’s Program of the World Student Christian Federation Asia-Pacific enabled 34 young women from 14 countries to come together and work for gender justice in Asia. The South Asia Women Doing Theology workshop took place in Bangalore, India, October 22-25, 2012.
The World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) is a global federation of student Christian groups committed to dialogue, ecumenism, social justice and peace. The young women and men involved are committed to leadership, justice and service at the radical edge of their cultures.
Under the WSCF Asia-Pacific body, the Regional Women’s Program (RWP) nurtures and enhances the leadership capacity of young women within WSCF in the region, and prioritizes women’s rights issues.
Women Doing Theology Workshop
Each year, RWP organizes gender justice and women’s empowerment training events such as the annual Women Doing Theology Workshop, which brings together young women leaders from local Student Christian Movements (SCM) in countries across the Asia-Pacific region to share their personal and collective stories of violence against women, to reread the Bible from feminist critical perspectives and to develop action plans that challenge oppressive systems and structures. United Methodist Women has supported this workshop and other RWP programs over the years.
Twenty-one women from 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific region attended the workshop. All participants were young women leaders in their respective movement. The workshop consisted of women-focused Bible studies, personal sharing of stories, a site visit to a social justice nonprofit for women and strategic planning on how to end violence against women.
Visthar: Nonprofit Site Visit
At Visthar, a nonprofit in southern India working to end the devadasi tradition of ritualistic sexual slavery, participants heard the stories of 15 girls who otherwise would have been committed to this practice that continues in India despite having been declared illegal by the government. These young women are only a sliver of the estimated 450,000 women trapped in this system of temple prostitution, which binds girls as young as 10 years old to sex work for the rest of their lives. Visthar cares for these girls through its Bandhavi program.
The participants learned about the devadasi tradition. As explained by the staff of Visthar, it is an ancient Indian custom by which a girl is ceremoniously dedicated or married to a deity or to a temple to serve a goddess. Traditionally devadasis had a respected status in their community, but in recent years the practice has been made illegal and has degenerated, causing low-caste girls to be exploited and abused in the sex industry. Participants learned that the oppressive devadasi system is still perpetuated in Indian society, harming the rights of women and children. Through Visthar, former devadasis have empowered themselves to obtain an education and skills to improve their lives.
“Telling Her Story” Session
In the workshop, each participant shared her personal social biography or experiences as a woman struggling toward liberation and transformation. The personal and collective stories of participants revealed that in South Asia, as elsewhere around the world, women experience gender discrimination at some point in their lives even if they do no grow up in a society with a tradition as horrendous as that of the devadasis. The stories revealed the personal struggles of women in society, at work, at home and in the church, areas in which the patriarchal dominant culture and system continues to oppress women.
Some of the young women who are working within the church shared that a female minister is treated or recognized as an assistant minister, not as the minister in charge. One of the stories a young woman told about her struggle to become a female deacon in her church surprised the group: she shared how one of the priests in her church responded to her wish to be ordained. The priest told her that God might kill her as punishment for being ordained and that women must stop their religious work once they are married.
The participants, however, also shared that they have tried to deal with these struggles through biblical reflection, the life experience of other women and their daily triumphs over gender discrimination.
National Challenges and Action Plans
During the workshop, each participant presented a report on women’s issues and an action plan based on her national SCM situation. Participants reported that the women’s issues from various countries helped them understand the regionwide problems women are facing and opened their eyes to what roles and initiatives can be taken individually or collectively to address the problems in meaningful and concrete ways.
The participants proposed strategies to address violence against women in their local communities:
- Creating forums within SCM for raising awareness of patriarchy through workshops, protests, campaigns, presentations and discussions.
- Enhancing the partnership between women and men with awareness programs.
- Developing a mechanism through which SCMs can appoint a women’s coordinator or officer to look after the women’s program.
- Using social media to promote women’s issues.
The entire program was eye opening, meaningful and inspiring to participants. They were encouraged by the messages from women religious leaders and empowered by the Bible studies, which enabled them to think critically. The trip to Visthar allowed them to learn from others’ experiences of being oppressed, marginalized and discriminated against as women. Overall, participants were grateful for the exposure and knowledge gained through the program. They looked forward to continuing dialogue with their communities and to the long-term result of increasing the leadership roles of women in SCMs, churches and societies worldwide.
Gifliyani K. Nayoan is the regional women’s coordinator of WSCF Asia-Pacific.