In Honor of Women

In Honor of Women

For the past two years, I have been a missionary in the Evangelical Congregational Church in Angola, known by its acronym IECA, working in its Department of Social Assistance, Studies and Projects, which is committed to witness to God’s call for love and justice in all aspects of our individual lives, in our communities, and our world.

Second Annual Tea of the Ladies’ Fellowship Group
Luanda, Angola

Good morning and grace and peace to each of you. It’s a pleasure to be part of this lovely event and to share some thoughts with you.

I must admit that I was a bit intimidated when the invitation was extended, realizing that I am a relative newcomer while many of you have been doing good things here for much longer. Then I found out that last year’s speaker was Grace Mozena, the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Angola, and I was doubly intimidated.

But, I overcame my fears when I realized that I am just weeks away from ending my work in Angola. So, if my remarks are terrible and disappointing, you won’t have to go to the trouble of running me out of town as I’m leaving anyway! And, if by good fortune my remarks are timely and useful, I can leave with no fear of having to live up to a good reputation! So, all things considered, thank you for your kind invitation to speak today.

For the past two years, I have been a missionary in the Evangelical Congregational Church in Angola, known by its acronym IECA, working in its Department of Social Assistance, Studies and Projects, which is committed to witness to God’s call for love and justice in all aspects of our individual lives, in our communities, and our world. Our department’s projects include:

  • Peace, Justice and Reconciliation
  • Equity for Women and  Children
  • Health and HIV/AIDS
  • Education and Training, and
  • Sustainable, Integrated Community Development

These projects most often reach out to women and children who are seeking encouragement, education, skills, and opportunities so that they, too, will have a place in the emerging Angola.

Living in Luanda and traveling to several provinces have provided many opportunities to observe and think about women’s roles and relationships. Much of my pondering has related to just how difficult life is here for the great majority of women, and for the children they are struggling to raise.

Angola, with its vast natural resources in oil and diamonds and the highest rate of economic growth in Southern Africa, still has one of the worst levels of poverty, ranking 161st out of the world’s 170 countries per the UN’s Human Development Index. Overall, 67% of the population lives below the poverty line, and in rural areas, the estimates are 90%. By many measures, women and children are those who suffer most from poverty and inequality. Just to remind us of a few of these measures:

  • The maternal mortality rate is 1,500 per 100,000; infant mortality stands at 154 for every 1,000 live births; and 274 out of 1,000 children die by age five.
  • The percentage of girls in primary education leaves much to be desired, and the enrolment gender gap in secondary education appears to be widening.
  • Women have been largely excluded from positions of leadership and decision-making, mostly due to traditional social norms and power relations.
  • Decades of physical and psychological violence as well as despair related to poverty have intensified violence against women, both inside and outside the home.
  • The war also contributed to a growing number of households headed by women and, even among married women, many have become informal traders in the market. Their incomes have become relatively more important, weakening the traditional position of men as family providers and contributing to increased domestic violence.

For me, it is the market women that I see daily who are symbols of the plight, but also signs of the relatively untapped possibilities of women here in Angola.

The plight part is only too easy to see. Many women leave home long before daylight to look for goods to sell, and then spend the day seated on sidewalks or walking around, in all kinds of weather, often with a child strapped to their backs. They reach home again long after dark and, depending on their sales during the day, there may or may not be anything to eat for dinner. And, tomorrow will be the same – filled with the stress of surviving.

But, let’s look a little deeper and see if we can find some sign of possibility, a source of hope. For starters, have you noticed how a market woman is generally not alone, but usually in the company of other women? They tend to actively seek each other’s company – to laugh and cry, to share and support, to celebrate, commiserate and survive, emotionally and physically. And, whether it is women sitting on the ground by the roadside or women sitting at well-laid tables at a ladies’ tea, we do seek each other’s company – we are “in it” together, whatever “it” may be.

Do we seek each other out because there are some common worldwide threads in how girls are raised that teach us to do this? Or is it something in our biological hardwiring? A recent study at the University of California – Los Angeles suggests that women actually respond to stress by making and maintaining friendships with other women! This turns upside down five decades of stress research – primarily on men – that lead scientists to believe that, when people are stressed, a rush of hormones causes either a “fight or flight” response. But one hormone, oxytocin by name, is released in larger quantities in women and is enhanced by estrogen, but diminished by testosterone. So women’s response to stress moves beyond the male “fight or flight” dynamic and permits us to “tend and befriend,” which can involve taking care of children, doing housecleaning or simply gathering together with other women. And, these very acts appear to continue to counter stress by releasing even more oxytocin. Pretty amazing that science may actually be catching up with what many of us have sensed intuitively for a long time – there is healing in women’s company and coping!

Whatever the roots, by nature or nurture or both, it does appear that women and men are somehow constituted differently and respond differently. We walk to the beat of a different drummer. I don’t say this to accuse or diminish our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and friends. I say this to affirm and celebrate our womanhood and the experiences of our mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends. For it is within this women’s web of connectedness that we begin to create understanding that can bridge the divisions that separate us – by economics, nationalities, race or religion –  in order to strategize together and to stand together for what is just and good for all of us in the human family.

As women, we tend to bear hardships and burdens in a way that does not totally drain us of all joy and grace. Women’s desire to protect and our ability to nurture are perhaps most commonly understood in the family context, in the birthing and raising of children. But, that same total investment of energy and passion can also be seen in voluntary and paid work – as well as in the nurturing of small businesses. Women will go without so that their family can have, but they also will make sacrifices to use well and pay back micro-loans.

I have become increasingly convinced that it is women’s care-taking spirit that keeps this globe turning on its axis as we give life and growth to family and friends alike – and I invite us to consider the strengths of women today and the possibilities of brighter tomorrows for millions of women currently trapped in poverty, violence and exploitation.

A few weeks ago, a woman friend sent me an essay called “The Women’s Crusade,” excerpted from a new book entitled Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. While documenting the sobering reality of millions of woman’s lives, it also pointed toward solutions, sometimes simple and affordable, and gave examples of women whose lives demonstrate the power and hope that reside in girls and women.

The essay, from which I will quote liberally, contends that although the injustices that women in poor countries suffer are of overriding importance, the opportunity that women themselves represent is even greater in economic and geopolitical terms. The Chinese saying that ‘women hold up half the sky’ may currently seem more wishful thinking than reality, because in many nations, girls are not educated and women are pushed to society’s margins. That these same nations are disproportionately poor and riddled with violence is no coincidence. From the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE, there is a growing consensus that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty, which is why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women.

The world is awakening to the powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.”

Aid seems to work best when targeted to health, education and microfinance, which brings us back to the potential related to market women. Microfinance organizations generally focus their lending on women because it appears that everyone benefits when women enter the work force and bring home regular pay. One persuasive reason is that when women earn and hold assets, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing. A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that in places where there are gender-specific farm plots and men’s crops flourish, the household spends more money on alcohol and tobacco. When the women have a good crop, households spend more on food. “When women command greater power, child health and nutrition improve.”

Research like this should lead to advocacy that countries adjust their laws so that when a man dies, his property is passed on to his widow rather than to his brothers. Governments should make it easy for women to hold property and bank accounts — only 1% of the world’s landowners are women — and they should make it much easier for microfinance institutions to start banks so that women can save.

Regarding girls’ education, some relatively low-cost and innovative solutions are suggested by research.  A study in Kenya is sited that examined six different approaches to improving educational performance, from providing free textbooks to child-sponsorship programs. The approach that raised student test scores the most was offering girls who had scored in the top 15 percent of their class on sixth-grade tests a $19 scholarship for seventh and eighth grade, along with recognition at a student assembly.

Another Kenyan study found that giving girls a new $6 school uniform every 18 months significantly reduced dropout rates and pregnancy rates. There is also growing evidence that an inexpensive way to help keep girls in high school is to help them manage their menstruation. For fear of embarrassing leaks and stains, girls sometimes stay home during their monthly periods and the resulting absenteeism puts them behind, so they eventually drop out.

Personally, I find these smaller, more incremental initiatives mentioned in this essay encouraging, somehow easier to wrap my arms around in response to large issues that present seemingly insurmountable challenges. And, who knows where small initiatives can lead. Kenya’s Wangari Maathai wasn’t always a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She began small – working in the trenches to reforest areas. And, her Green Belt Movement became a strong environmental and political force winning worldwide recognition.

Thank God that there are women appearing on these larger stages. But let us never forget there are real-life heroes – or “sheroes,” if you prefer – in our midst that encourage, create and inspire. We have recognized five such women here today. I want to mention three Angolan women who have given me hope during my time here.

Maria Lúcia Chipaka, the Administrator of Andolo, met with the participants at our church’s 2008 National Health Forum held in Bié Province. With great openness she shared her plans and dreams for the municipality, and she came not just with hopes and promises, but with supplies to help the church reconstruct destroyed buildings at the Chilesso Mission Station. She is one of the emerging groups of women in provincial posts, women who have intentions, skills and hopefully power to better people’s quality of life.

Pastor Adelaide Neyala invited me to attend one of her weekly women’s support group meetings in Lubango. Approximately 50 women proudly shared the health and household skills they learned in IECA’s local training center and discussed the challenges of addressing domestic violence that is prevalent, even in church families. Pastora Adelaide may have lost her husband during the civil war and buried a son last month, but she has not lost her ability to move forward with faith and strength, encouraging and empowering other women.

And last, but not least, Eva Chipenda is the woman who challenged and inspired me to come to Angola. I have sworn to Eva that I would never reveal her age, so let me just say that as she closes in on 80, an age when most people are struggling to just maintain themselves, Eva has just pushed, with all her considerable might, to open this past March a pre-school program in a very poor section of Lobito. It is this program that will benefit from funds raised here today. And, I can assure you that your support will be gratefully received and wonderfully used.

The Canata Preschool Program currently enrolls nearly 100 children between the ages of 3 and 5. It has a strong arts component and recreational activities, encourages teamwork, and exposes children to pre-reading skills. And, all of this takes place in a caring and nurturing environment that brings out the best in the children. When you walk in the courtyard door, the children run to greet and embrace you – but, not with the same fervor that occurs when they see Dona Eva enter. They cry out her name and last week practically knocked her off her feet in their enthusiasm to hug her! It’s as if they sense in their tender young spirits that this woman loves them and has opened a door for them to have a chance to enter a better life.

Creating a better life, for herself, her family, and others, has been the story of Eva Chipenda’s life. One of twelve children, she was one of only three who survived to adulthood. When Eva was only three years old, her mother made a choice that probably saved her daughter’s life: sending her to be raised by Eva’s older brother Julio who was a pastor. Frequently uprooted, Eva often felt herself to be an outsider, but never let the changes that distanced her from family and peers stop her quest for education and training. She completed high school in Angola, received a scholarship to go to Brazil for training in development and social work, and married a promising young pastor who ended up being considered a threat by Angola’s colonial government. At one point, Eva embraced her mother’s legacy of making courageous choices as she, her young daughter, and baby son escaped from Portugal in a boat by night to be reunited with her husband who was studying in the U.S.

As her husband, José Chipenda, became internationally known, for example, as head of the All Africa Conference of Churches for a decade, Eva often lived in his shadow, a not uncommon experience for women. But in her own way, Eva always managed to emerge from that shadow to shed her own bright light. Everywhere they went – from New York to Geneva to Nairobi to Lobito – Eva availed herself of opportunities to learn and had the vision to start projects – including dressmaking, culinary arts, and children’s programs – projects that have improved the lives of hundreds of women and children.

These three women have encouraged me and stretched my own vision of what is possible for women to achieve here in Angola and elsewhere. The challenge is for each of us to step out of any shadow that can hide our light and obscure or limit all that we can be and do. And, in so doing, we encourage and facilitate others doing likewise. As we step out, we need to claim that what unites us is greater than what divides us. The women gathered at this tea and the women selling in the markets are not “us” and ”them,” but are truly “we” – all part of women who hold up half the sky. We need to look around and to look within, to meet and connect across barriers that keep us separated, in order to share our common gifts and to work for common goals that will benefit everyone.

For those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we do this as we seek to follow the prophet Micah’s counsel regarding what God requires of us: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” But, always, we must join hands with people of every faith tradition and people of just sheer good will who are committed to peace and justice. We must overcome fears that the issues are too big to be changed or that our efforts are too small to have an impact. We need to claim our power as women.

In that spirit, I close with some wise words by Marianne Williamson, which may help to guide us on our way forward:

‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you NOT to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so
that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other
people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.’

Thank you so much for your kind attention. And, I wish each of you Godspeed in your efforts to help hold up our half of the sky!

Donna Dudley

Donna Dudley serves with the Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola.  She assists with development projects and staff leadership training programs.