Africa / Americas / Commentary / Faith and religion

Shared plight of lesbian, straight women goes unheard?

Excerpts from a March 20 commentary that the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle wrote at the conclusion of recent meetings of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York:

Logo of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women

Logo of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women

Three thousand women are returning home from the UN after a unique opportunity to share insights and listen to one another. The question remains simply: Were they talking to themselves, or did the world hear about their courage, achievements and their cries?

It was a deeply moving experience for me to listen into this difficult global conversation. Just as LGBT rights in the USA have ensured many of us live in relative safety and comfort, gender equality in the USA has also created a bubble for American women that is not the reality for most women and girls in the world. …

With 80 countries still having legal and constitutional barriers that discriminate against women (particularly around property rights) the question many people are asking at CSW this year is simply, “How do we remove the barriers and step up the commitment to gender equality so that more women and girls can emerge from poverty, ill health, gender-based and sexual violence and human trafficking?” The faith community shares responsibility with governments and the business sector to ensure these barriers are dismantled in the next decade.

There are a couple of examples where cutting-edge inter-faith work is being developed as attempts to break through this inertia and move the agenda forward, particularly around health, gender-based violence and ending human trafficking, which is one of the most lucrative growing economies, surpassing the oil industry.

Empowering women of faith

Maxensia Nakibuuka from Uganda spoke passionately in front of my congregation at St. Peter’s, Lithgow, last Sunday. She talked about her work and why it was important to be attending the Commission’s meetings this year.

The panel "Women of Faith, Women of Doubt" was held at Riverside Church in New York. It included (left to right) Angeline Jackson from Jamaica,  S. N. Nyeck from Cameroon, journalist Andy Kopsa from New York, Maxensia Nakibuuka from Uganda, and the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle.

The panel “Women of Faith, Women of Doubt” was held at Riverside Church in New York. It included (left to right) Angeline Jackson from Jamaica, S. N. Nyeck from Cameroon, journalist Andy Kopsa from New York, Maxensia Nakibuuka from Uganda, and the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle.

She was invited by the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation to present on a panel linking LGBT and gender-equality issues in the Global South and by the Huairou Commission, a Brooklyn-based network of grassroots women’s organizations throughout the world.

Maxensia spoke powerfully at all three events about the need for grassroots economic empowerment of women so the church excludes no one. Even lesbian, transgender and bisexual women need to have meaningful work, equal access to education and health services. With 40 percent of health services provided by the faith community in Africa, Maxensia represents a powerful shield to protect rather than a sword to exclude. Her desire to include all the voices of women come from her Christian faith and her experience of being stigmatized.

Her remarkable story begins in Uganda where she buried eight of her siblings because of HIV and had to care for many of their children. She recounted this story on the floor of the UN General Assembly five years ago when we first met. Her husband infected her, even though he blamed her for bringing the virus into their Catholic-sanctified marriage. When he died, Maxensia was merely seen as her husband’s property and was evicted with her four children from their home by his blood family. She said:

“Although women contribute over 60% of Uganda’s economic growth and development through their hard work in families, on the land and to society as a whole, we are still second-class citizens and the property of our husbands. We have no rights.

“Our culture and religion ensure women remain powerless and do not own anything because we are also looked on as property to be owned.”

Health-care activist Maxensia Nakibuuka of Uganda, working in Cameroon with the Rev. Albert Ogle, poses at the African Conference on Seuxual Health with Miriam, who was rejected by her family because she became pregnant when she was raped. (Photo courtesy of Maxensia Nakibuuka)

Health-care activist Maxensia Nakibuuka of Uganda, poses with a woman who was rejected by her family because she became pregnant when she was raped. (Photo courtesy of Maxensia Nakibuuka)

Maxensia is also an adviser to the ancient Buganda Kingdom, now a political and cultural entity within the Victorian-created Uganda. The tribe was co-opted by the British as the dominant tribe over neighboring ones during Africa’s tragic Colonial period.

“As Buganda, we discuss who will be the heirs to our land and property and it is never considered to be given to a woman within the existing cultural systems. Add to this the biblical idea that a woman has to leave her family to be married to a man and they become ‘one.’

“Even the Bible describes the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 where only men are counted. Women and children are invisible. This is still the case in many places today.

“Culture and religion still place women in a vulnerable place where stereotypes (a woman’s place is in the home) and stigma pervades everything.”

“I have been reading stories about women who live around our lakes and they are so poor that they exchange sex for fish! (She frowns and takes a deep breath.) I know we have lots of women in parliament and even in government, but what are we doing to help these women? Economic poverty often leads to poverty of spirit.”

Hearing Maxensia’s anger at these indignities reminded me of a phrase we Episcopalians use in Morning Prayer: “Let not the hope of the poor be taken away.”…

Next steps

Maxensia had some important meetings in the Washington, D.C., area this week as a result of the advocacy of the St. Paul’s Foundation with Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore and World Vision in Washington.

As newly appointed coordinator for HIV services for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kampala, she is seeking faith partners to help with funding for health and economic development programs that welcome LGBT people’s leadership and participation. She will also be meeting with USAID with some of our DC-based board members. She returns [to Uganda] on Wednesday to begin a huge new job and without support from outside, she will simply not succeed because the problems are so enormous.

Angeline Jackson (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Angeline Jackson (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

I continue with my travels today to close out CSW with Angeline Jackson’s visit to Miami this weekend. We have arranged a meeting of LGBT organizations at Trinity Cathedral in Miami to hear about CSW and the particular implications for LGBT people in difficult contexts like Jamaica where LGBT people remain criminals and constantly hounded by the churches there.

To what extent these two women will gain some support over the next few weeks will indicate the impact of the 450+ workshops and side events at CSW this year. It is up to all of us to help them to implement the programs and strategies they talked about and to magnify this engagement on a global scale.

For more information, read the full commentary in the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

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