|The Elders have just hired Leslie-Anne Knight, victim of papal politics, to be the new CEO of their organization.
I don't normally get inspired to post at night, but tonight is a different story. I thought I'd start out 2013 with some good news. I was seriously dismayed back in March of 2011 when the Vatican summarily fired Leslie-Anne Knight as head of Caritas Internationales. There was no real reason given, except some mumbling about Catholic identity issues being blurred by the social justice mission of Caritas and as the head of the organization Leslie-Anne Knight was not pushing the identity issues strongly enough. Subsequent to that the Pope just recently issued a motu proprio emphasizing the importance of Catholic identity markers for Catholic evangelization in Catholic charitable works.
Back in 2011 I thought Lesli-Anne Knight had been sand bagged by the men with an agenda. I hoped and prayed we would hear from her again. Well, as of January 2nd she begins a new position as CEO of the Elders. The Elders is a group of retired world leaders who are committed to work together to foster peace and human rights. They are especially working for the advancement of women and girls in traditional societies whose customs ignore human rights for women. This link will take you to the home page of the Elders. Readers will recognize more than a few of the names of the Elders. No major Catholic figure is among them, but now one is their CEO, and since God is good, Leslie-Anne Knight is going to find things very different.
When you read the following blog piece from the Elders website by Bishop Desmond Tutu, try to imagine Pope Benedict writing this piece. It was virtually impossible for me, the passing of the Philippine Reproductive Rights bill still on my mind and so was his anti gender bender speech to his curia, but my imagination soared with the idea that this sermon from Bishop Tutu is what I am working towards as a 21st Century Vatican II Catholic.
“I call on men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women. It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.”
On 25 November, we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It is deeply saddening, though perhaps not shocking, to learn that around 70 percent of all women experience physical or sexual abuse during their lifetime. Despite the progress we have made, this world remains a cruel and arbitrary one for too many women and girls.
Do not be fooled, however: this is not some so-called “women’s issue”. After all, we know that more often than not, the violence suffered by women is inflicted by the men they share their lives with – their fathers, husbands, intimate partners. If the majority of women in this world have suffered at the hands of their men, how many millions of men must have hurt and abused women? How many millions of men have stood by and let it happen?
If men overwhelmingly brutalise women, then men are overwhelmingly brutal.
This is something I cannot accept. This is why I call on men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women. It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men .
An unspoken kind of violence
I am an Elder now, and have witnessed many forms of brutality. There is the direct, physical violence often committed in anger or in war. But there are other forms of violence, too – more complex, more insidious, more unspoken – that we must not overlook.
In Ethiopia, last year, my fellow Elders and I met a woman called Himanot who was forced to get married when she was 13 years old. She was not physically forced or dragged to her wedding in chains – in fact, she wanted to run away. But her mother told her that she would kill herself if Himanot ran away. So what choice did the child have?
Inflicting this kind of emotional pressure is a form of violence against women. Taking away a girl’s education, a girl’s right to develop in her own time, to fulfill her potential: yes, this is violence. Yet, I do not judge Himanot’s mother too harshly. Most parents who marry off their daughters young have their best interests at heart – not many of them would willingly have their child face the shame and stigma of defying “tradition”.
So if this is violence, who is the perpetrator? If not the family, is it the community? Where does the responsibility end? The statistics tell us that 70 percent of women suffer violence at some point in their lives. But I suspect this figure would be higher if we included all the emotional, structural violence that for many girls and women forms the warp and weft of everyday life.
Child marriage is violence against women
When it comes to violence against women, there are few practices as harmful, or as widespread, as early marriage. It is not just the intense emotional and social pressure that the young bride is put under. Fundamentally, it violates a girl’s right to determine her own future – how can a child give her “consent” to marry when she is just 10 or 12 years old?
In such an unequal union, we know that girls are far more vulnerable to physical violence, especially when they are married to older men. It is hard to insist on practising safe sex, leaving them more likely to contract HIV or become pregnant before they are ready. And early childbearing itself can be devastating to a girl’s body – across the entire developing world, childbirth is the number one cause of death for girls aged 15-19.
And despite all this, the practice is defended in the name of “tradition”. This is why my fellow Elder Ela Bhatt says, “Child marriage is violence that is happening with the consent of society.”
Of course, not all of society consents. There are a few courageous voices, growing louder and stronger every day , who are challenging the status quo. I have been privileged to meet some of those who are showing their true mettle, defying tradition to protect the rights of girls and women in their communities.
Teenage boys challenging tradition in India
The state of Bihar has one of the highest rates of child marriage in India – 69 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. It is actually illegal in India to marry before the age of 18, for girls, or 21, for boys. But for most young people there, the weight of family and community tradition overrides this relatively recent law.
When I travelled to Bihar with my fellow Elders earlier this year , a boy called Premnath told me how his father is pressuring him to find a wife who can help with the housework after his mother passed away last year. But Prem – just 18 years old – is resisting. He has pledged to delay marriage, and proudly showed us a book of similar pledges from other young people and their families.
Together with his peers in the “Jagriti” movement, both girls and boys, he is now mobilising young people all over Bihar to make the same commitment. They already had more than 21,000 signatures when we visited last year – a staggering achievement. It seems, in fact, that he and his peers are defying their own Elders! This takes some guts, and I have to salute them for it.
Men and boys: take a stand
I want to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women by recognising the work of young men like Premnath. It is one thing to stop an individual act of violence, or perhaps a violent individual. But to take on a whole community, a whole tradition, and try to challenge something that has been harming girls for generations – that is courage.
Men have a lot to answer for, I cannot deny it. We have built institutions that oppress and harm women, and we justify our practices as “the way things are” or “the way things have always been”. Yet, as I always say, I am a prisoner of hope. I do believe that we men can help put a stop to these traditions. We can refuse to participate in them, and we can refuse to condone them. We can go further, and campaign against them.
It is not an easy task. But if an 18-year old boy in a patriarchal, traditional community like Prem’s can do it, I have faith that others can do it, too.
As I wrote above it is impossible for me to imagine that too many of our Roman Catholic leaders would have the guts to write the above blog piece. Well, unless they were retired. It is just nauseating to me that I truly believe our current Pope would find these sentiments 'radical feminsim'. And principally because Bishop Tutu talks about reproductive rights for child brides, the right to protect their own lives from the sexual transmission of HIV, and the real harm pregnancy does to these young bodies. Of course here I flash on the nine year old girl in Recife, Brazil and the Catholic insanity surrounding that situation. It really is impossible to imagine any Catholic leader writing as Bishop Tutu does. That especially includes his call for men to help put a stop to these patriarchal traditions that exploit women--- because in point of fact our Catholic male leadership is calling for a removal or women's reproductive rights and doubling down on patriarchy.
I could seriously go on, but in any event, congratulations Leslie-Anne Knight. May 2013 be a very good year for you. And for all my readers.