For crying out loud: Easter week reflections on advocacy

This week’s guest blog is written by Doug Klassen, pastor of Foothills Mennonite Church in Calgary, Alberta. His reflection is based on a sermon he preached on Palm Sunday (April 13, 2014), on Luke 19:28-40.

I was recently asked to participate in an interview as part of an Advocacy Research Project being conducted by MCC. So the whole question of advocacy has been looming in the back of my mind. It also hit me as I began working with the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture texts.

In the Palm Sunday story, Jesus is on his way into the city and his reputation is preceding him. By him the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the demonized are delivered, the dead are raised, the powerful are chastised, and the outcasts are welcomed and commended for their faith.

A church in the Old City of Jerusalem.  MCC photo

A church in the Old City of Jerusalem. MCC photo

As he enters the Kidron Valley, people welcome him like they would a king. They tear down palm branches and lay their cloaks on the ground. “Hosanna, Hosanna,” they shout. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

For us, “hosanna” has become a praise word. But in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, it was a political word. Directly translated, “hosanna” means, “Save us!” or “Save now!” People believed that if Jesus could heal the sick and raise the dead, surely he could kick the Roman occupiers out of Palestine and restore Israel to her fortunes. So they were singing and crying out Psalm 118 at the top of their lungs.

The Pharisees, who had a love/hate relationship with Rome, became nervous because, if the crowd really got going, they could spark a crackdown. So they say to Jesus, “Tell your disciples to be quiet.” Jesus replies, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very stones will cry out.”

Jesus was actually repeating the words of Habbakuk, a prophet in the Southern Kingdom around 600 BC. Habbakuk saw corruption, injustice, oppression and evil-doing all around him and demanded that God act. God responded:

Crosses hang on the Mexican side of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico, commemorating the 4,000 people who have lost their lives attempting to cross the desert in search of a better life in the United States.  Copyright:Tim Hoover/MCC

Crosses hang on the Mexican side of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico, commemorating the 4,000 people who have lost their lives attempting to cross the desert in search of a better life in the United States. Copyright: Tim Hoover/MCC

“Woe to anyone who builds his house by unjust gain, Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by injustice! The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.”

There may be few stones crying out in the world today, but we do know that there are millions of people in our world today who are crying out loud, “Hosanna, hosanna! Save us now!”

Thousands face the threat of flooding in refugee camps in South Sudan, and 5000 people are running the gauntlet to flee Syria every day. Human trafficking and slavery abound. The gap between rich and poor – even in our own country – widens.

How do we advocate for people who are crying out today?

It is my feeling that all church-based advocacy work has to be anchored or founded in God’s story of redemption. Our starting point is the cross of Jesus Christ and God’s action in raising him from the dead. A new day has dawned. The peace of heaven has come to earth and everything is turning. And one day heaven and earth will be remade and wed into one.

So, practically speaking, how do we advocate? What do we do?  I think the place for us to start is in prayer. Where there is no prayer, there is no power.

Participants in an MCC-sponsored peace club in Lusasa, Zambia end their meeting with prayer. Copyright:Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky

Participants in an MCC-sponsored peace club in Lusaka, Zambia end their meeting with prayer. Copyright: Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky

We pray for people, we pray the words of the Bible, we pray the words of Habakkuk when we see what is going on around us. We pray and pray and pray and pray.  The starting point for advocacy must be a massive church-wide call to prayer and intercession. From the hours in prayer and Bible study we get our perspective and power for the task ahead.

Second, we must place ourselves where Jesus placed himself. Jesus chose to live with the poor. He addressed his gospel by preference to the poor. And he lashed out at the rich and the powerful. Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom of justice and liberation, to be established in favour of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized of history.

So if we want to do advocacy work with any kind of integrity, before we speak a word, we need to be in relationship with those with whom Jesus shared his life. That gives advocacy integrity because we can speak from experience.

Third, we move is in the direction of the cross. We don’t come to advocacy with any effort to exercise power over someone. We move from power to powerlessness, in the peace-loving footsteps of Jesus, and with a vision of the Kingdom of God before us.

There are no easy solutions to the world’s problems. But the role of the church is not to be silent. We do know what the future holds and who holds the future. So whenever we speak out for others – and join our cry with theirs – let us be sure to declare the hope we have for the world.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the one who is bringing peace to the earth from heaven itself.

Are we nearing the end of START?

Word on the street is that it’s “business as usual” for another six months.

While we’ve long been hearing rumours that some sort of change is “imminent,” the fate of the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force—also known as START—is still unclear. The latest news making its way through the Ottawa-grapevine is that it has received yet another temporary funding extension while it continues to undergo yet another review.

Intending to serve as a “one-stop shop” within the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD), START was launched in 2005 as an inter-agency mechanism for coordinating Canada’s whole-of-government response in fragile and conflict-affected states. Established under the leadership of Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, START became the lead focal point for analyzing, planning, and coordinating effective conflict prevention, disaster response, civilian protection, peace operations, and stabilization interventions in places impacted by complex crises.

soudansud-southsudan2

Courtesy of START/DFATD website (South Sudan)

Originally designated a relatively modest budget of $500 million over five years through the Global Peace and Security Fund (GPSF)—a funding pot created to finance the secretariat and its programs—START has significantly exceeded this initial target. By March of 2013, it was reported to have received more than $1 billion since its inception.

What, concretely, are the kinds of things this task-force is tasked with carrying out?

Focusing on seven priority countries/regions (a list that has remained relatively stable over the years), the initiative has supported such things as justice and security sector reform in Haiti, the conflict minerals certification scheme in Africa’s Great Lakes Region, disarmament and reintegration processes for ex-combatants in Colombia, constitutional development in South Sudan, and National Police force training in Afghanistan.

Very multifaceted and, some would say, innovative work. Given that the 21st century security environment is characterized by complex and interconnected causes of violence (state failures, civil wars, and slow- and rapid-onset disasters), interdisciplinary approaches like START that draw on a range of tools and actors are important.

It should be noted, of course, that any “whole-of-government” approach (however laudable in intent) is not without its complications. After all, development, defence, and diplomacy often have related-yet-distinct goals. Problems arising from blurred lines between political and military efforts in complex environments like Afghanistan, for example, have highlighted potential areas of tension when the line between “coordination” and “integration” isn’t mindfully managed.  MCC has been critical of “whole of government” approaches because of the way they militarize development efforts, distort development priorities (from seeking to meet the needs of local people to serving the strategic interests of military forces), and increase danger and insecurity for all aid and development workers.

START-Afghanistan

Courtesy of START/DFATD website (Afghanistan)

Apart from the practical challenges of working across departments, START also isn’t immune from being shaped by larger political agendas. Lead by the assumption that the fragility of other states poses a threat to Canada’s own security, determinations about what countries to focus on, programs to implement, and length of engagement are governed by a set of interest-based considerations. As such, responses risk being filtered through the lens of Canada’s own foreign policy agenda rather than by the most effective peacebuilding strategies.

START has been shaped in subtler ways as well. When launched in 2005, the initiative was rooted in the human security agenda that was a signature of past Liberal governments. This agenda, however, has all but been abandoned in recent years, as overt references to “human security” (and other peace-related terms) have been removed from websites, division names, and programs, replaced by terms such as “freedom,” “human rights,” “rule of law,” and “democracy.” Such linguistic changes capture a larger shift in Canada’s official foreign and defence policy towards a different kind of security paradigm.

All caveats aside, START, and the Global Peace and Security Fund (GPSF) that makes its work possible, seems effectively to fill an institutional gap for Canada’s response to complex environments.

For the last year or so, however, the fate of this program has been (to outsiders, at least) fuzzy at best, with conflicting information coming down the pipeline in fits and starts.

Last spring, we heard that START was in the midst of being re-branded—the launch of a “new-and-improved” (more likely just newly-named) initiative just a rubber-stamp from Cabinet away. Twice last year, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird promised the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development that the GPSF was not being cut (as many feared), but that a “new initiative” was “coming in short order.”

By all accounts, it seems the time-allotment for “short order” has come and gone, and we are still waiting with baited breath for some definitive news. Beyond the six-month extension, the program’s future still remains unclear.

At the end of six months, will we see the end of START, and the start of something new?

Let’s hope if this is just a re-branding exercise, they don’t change too much of the substance.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Senior Policy Analyst

 

 

Let us not fail . . .

The writer of this week’s blog is Pam Peters-Pries, Associate Director of Program for MCC Canada.

From 1984-1986, I attended Rosthern Junior College (RJC), a private Mennonite residential school in Rosthern, SK. I’ve often referred to my experience there as “two years of summer camp.” Grades 11 and 12 were filled with teachers and classes I loved, faith exploration, sports, music, great friends and much fun.

From 1994-1996, Shaun attended St. Michael’s Residential School, a Catholic-run Indian residential school in Duck Lake, SK – just 21 kilometers north of Rosthern. He shared devastatingly about the chaotic and abusive household in which he grew up with parents who were both residential school survivors. They died young and tragically, leaving Shaun a ward of the province, bouncing between foster homes until he landed at St. Michael’s.

Shaun graduated from St. Michael’s in 1996 – the year it closed. Of all the stories I heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) National Gathering in Edmonton last week, his story left me the most shaken. While I was having the time of my life at RJC, the tragedy that is Indian residential schools was continuing just up the road. How could this be? How could I not have known – about St. Michael’s specifically, or about the history and impact of residential schools more generally? How could all of my public and private school teachers, good people whom I trusted and respected, fail to have taught me about this? What should I do with this realization of my own privilege, my lack of knowledge about and engagement with the reality and legacy of Indian residential schools, a devastating legacy that Indigenous people in this country have had no choice but to endure or to confront?

Mennonites Tim Dyck (fourth from L) and Hildebrand (5th from L) present a quilt to Commissioners and Survivor Representatives at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Edmonton National Event, March 2014.

Anabaptist leaders Tim Dyck (fourth from L) and Hilda Hildebrand (5th from L) present a quilt and a statement of reconciliation to Commissioners and Survivor Representatives at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Edmonton National Event, March 2014. Photo credit Eileen Klassen Hamm

While Shaun said his own experience at residential school was generally positive, he also named himself an inter-generational survivor. The unresolved trauma suffered by former residential schools students – taken from their families and culture for the expressed purpose of “killing the Indian in the child,” and often subjected to multiple forms of abuse – has been passed on from generation to generation. It is this legacy that the TRC was created to address. Through truth-telling, residential school survivors may begin or continue their journeys of healing. By bearing witness to their truth, the myths we settlers have constructed about what counts as history, how we “earned” our privilege, and why Indigenous people suffer the marginalization they do, can be deconstructed. And then we may join the long journey of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and between all of us and this tragic past.

This will not be easy. As Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, said, “If you think truth is hard, just wait until we try reconciliation!” But this legacy must be addressed. We all must choose to bring its truth to light, to learn its hard, hard lessons, and to walk together toward reconciliation. I am deeply grateful to the courageous residential school survivors, the Commissioners of the TRC, and the many others who are calling us relentlessly to this important work. As the formal work of the TRC comes to a close in the next year, let us not fail to continue on the path to truth and reconciliation.

To read a statement of reconciliation by Anabaptist church leaders to the Edmonton National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, click here.

Is this the way to deter human smuggling?

This week’s blog post is by Julia Tallmeister, Advocacy Research Intern at the Ottawa Office, in anticipation of Refugee Rights Day on April 4, 2014.

When people fear for their lives and safety, they may be forced to do all they possibly can to ensure their survival. Often, the prospect of security in a ‘safe’ country overpowers the possibility of detention for entering a country illegally.

MV Sun SeaNational hysteria ensued in 2010 when a group of around 500 Tamil migrants arrived in BC on the ship the MV Sun Sea to claim asylum. Despite the fact that the total number of migrants who entered Canada by boat over the 25 year period between 1986 and 2011 (1,500) amounts to merely 0.2 per cent of the total number of refugees accepted into Canada over the same time, the perceived “boat problem” prompted the Canadian government to propose a number of measures aimed at preventing the smuggling of immigrants into Canada.

Much has already been said about Bill C-31, or Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which came into effect in 2012. To mention only a few of the many changes this bill brought forth, it authorized the automatic and arbitrary detention of “irregular arrivals” (or “designated foreign nationals”) over the age of 16, without review, for up to one year. Migrants are now subjectively designated as “irregular arrivals” by the Minister of Public Safety when the identity of a person needs to be established, when investigations concerning the person or group cannot be done in a timely fashion, or when there is a suspicion of human smuggling.

As explained by Dr. Stephanie Silverman at a recent lecture at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, detained immigrants now face a multitude of challenges. These include the overpopulation of detention centres, exposure to violence, and the lack of statutory rights to legal counsel and translation services, all of which can lead to deterioration in mental health and higher susceptibility to suicidal tendencies. Immigration detention not only has high financial costs – $70,000 per person, per year – but detrimental social effects, as it criminalizes and securitizes vulnerable groups of people, and immigration in general.

Further, “irregular arrivals” who are granted refugee status are still denied access to permanent resident status for a minimum of five years, making them unable to sponsor children, spouses, or other close family members.

All of this is meant to deter human smuggling.

proud2protectenbuttonWhat is paradoxical, however, is that while the federal government tries to “crack down” on human smuggling, it has also been creating incentives for illegal immigration and human smuggling. Illegal entry from the US into Canada has been on the rise since the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) came into effect in December of 2004. The STCA prevents individuals from claiming asylum in Canada if they arrive in the US first, and vice versa. With certain exceptions, asylum seekers must make their claim in the first country they enter. This has led to a drastic decline in asylum claims made at the Canadian border and has forced many refugees to make their claim in the United States, despite the several ways in which the American asylum system falls below international standards.

While the STCA is meant to make the border more secure, it has, in reality, encouraged illegal border crossing and human smuggling into Canada. In 2012 the Integrated Border Enforcement Team reported that human smuggling attempts into Canada had increased by 58 per cent from 2010 to 2011. A recent study by Harvard Law School highlights the human toll of tightening the border, finding that some asylum seekers have drowned in desperate attempts to swim across the Niagara River, and others have been killed or lost limbs while trying to cross railway bridges into Canada.

This is just one illustration highlighting the fact that there will always be tensions between the supposed intentions of a policy or law, and the actual impact. It seems to me that if Canada truly wants to decrease the rate of human smuggling, tightening the border and preventing refugees from entering the country safely and legally is not the solution.

April 4th is Refugee Rights Day in Canada. Click here to read about some ways you can reach out to your community and take action to protect refugee rights.

Persistent questions about war tax resistance

It is tax season.  And once again I am confronted by the fact that nearly nine percent of my income tax goes for military purposes.

stop paying for warFor nearly forty years, Conscience Canada has been faithfully encouraging Canadians to withhold the military portion of their income tax as a form of modern-day conscientious objection. It has provided a peace trust fund as a repository where “conscientious objectors to military taxation” (COMTs) may send their withheld tax until such a time as the federal government creates a legal peace fund were they may re-direct the military portion of their tax.

I recently heard a good friend and Conscience Canada supporter speak publicly about his own journey of war tax resistance. He spoke with passion and eloquence and a heartfelt commitment to peace. He noted that Canada has spent $20 billion on a 12-year war in Afghanistan. He posed the question, “What might happen if people opposed to Canada’s participation in war simply refused to pay for it?”

I too have withheld the military portion of my income tax as a way of saying NO to military expenditures that I believe harm humanity and the planet. I was able to do this during several years of self-employment when I did not have an employer deducting income tax from my paycheck. Since I have returned to a salaried job I don’t have the option of actually withholding my military tax. And, to be honest, I have been less than consistent in offering other forms of protest in subsequent years.

Those who persist in war tax resistance over a sustained period of time are courageous people. They are choosing to break the law for the sake of deeply held religious beliefs or commitments of conscience. They are prophets among us.

They are often also quite lonely. My friend asked his audience why more people – presumably pacifists – don’t embrace war tax resistance. He wondered why the wider church has not given greater support to people who seek to express their conscientious objection to war in this way. I sensed a deep loneliness.

canadian-foot-patrolAs I think of my own responses, I wonder why I personally have been an inconsistent promoter of war tax resistance. I think it boils down to this:  When individuals choose to withhold their tax, they are seeking a way to remove themselves from war and military preparations. Their actions do not directly challenge Canada’s involvement in war or other highly militarized “peace support” operations. They do not critique levels of military spending. Neither do they address Canada’s eagerness to sell military equipment around the world.

To be sure, Mennonite conscientious objectors traditionally sought provisions that would exempt them from military service. They did not really question the notion of war itself or Canada’s role in prosecuting war.  They wanted to make sure that people whose religious beliefs (or conscience) prevented them from killing others would not be required to do so by the state. So the approach of COMTs is in keeping with the longer tradition of conscientious objection.

I guess I wonder if, today, we are called to speak more intentionally to the bigger systems.

Some years ago, MCC Canada’s peace network made that choice. The Canadian government (first Liberal and then Conservative) involved the country deeply in war in Afghanistan, it drastically increased military spending, and it fostered a kind of militarized patriotism unknown to several generations of Canadians. Our peace network (MCC peace staff across the country) was confronted with the question:  Do we use our limited resources of time and money primarily to advance the idea of war tax resistance and a legal peace tax fund for conscientious objectors? Or do we use those resources to speak to the larger policy framework and ethos? To put it crassly, do we advocate for special accommodations for the few? Or do we confront the system that says peace can be built through war and military force?

armedbannerAt the time, our peace network decided for the latter. We subsequently carried on a several-year campaign called O Canada: armed and ready. We resisted Canada’s participation in war in a variety of ways: letters, petitions, a women’s fast, prayer vigils and other forms of public witness.

Did we make the right decision?  I’m not sure. No doubt many COMTs would say that my framing of the issue is a false dichotomy. They would insist that by withholding their tax they are confronting the war system itself. It is not a question of “either or.”

I am moved and inspired by people like my friend who make the difficult and courageous choice to withhold tax, not knowing what this might ultimately mean for them.  “Will you visit me in jail?” he asks.

My own questions persist …

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office. From 2000 to 2010, Esther was peace program coordinator for MCC Canada.

We are all treaty people in so-called Canada

This week’s guest blog is written by Hannah Enns, a student at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. She participated in the Ottawa Office’s annual student seminar, this year focused on the theme “‘Inconvenient’ relationships? Indigenous rights, reconciliation and advocacy.” Read other reflections and view photo gallery.

We are all treaty people here in so-called Canada. We all have a role to play in discovering the truth of our colonial history, in reconciling relationships between settler folk and indigenous peoples, and in working towards a vision of decolonization built on a transformation of relationships and self-determination.

At 6:15 am on Friday, February 14, I stepped off a Greyhound bus and walked down the snowy streets of Ottawa. The sun was rising over the tall buildings and the roads were mostly empty, save for the odd car or pedestrian who was brave enough to face the cold and gusty winds at such an early hour. As I walked, I found myself thinking of the Women’s Memorial March that takes place across Canada around Valentine’s Day. This is a time to remember and bring witness to the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.

poignant and interactive way of learning about the often untold history of Canada's Indigenous peoples.

Students participate in the Blanket Exercise, poignant and interactive way of learning about the often untold history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

This sobering thought helped to prepare me for an emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing weekend of stories as I participated in the MCC Student Seminar looking at settler and indigenous relationships. These stories have added to a year-long personal journey of discovery of colonial history and present-day continued colonization practices that our government upholds.

We are all treaty people here in so-called Canada. Whether settler or First Nation, we need to work towards decolonizing ourselves, decolonizing our actions, and decolonizing our country.

The student seminar reminded me that history in North America did not simply start in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Despite what our history books say and what I learned in grade school, life on Turtle Island has a complex history. The Hudson Bay Company or the North West Trading Company did not just simply ‘own’ this land. People have lived here and thrived here for thousands of years. What do you think would be different today if instead of colonizing, Europeans were grateful to the initial welcome of the First Nations and decided not to teach, but rather learn from those who lived here for generations? What if Europeans actually upheld the Two Row Wampum agreement that outlined a beautiful vision of co-habitation, mutual assistance, and — ultimately and most importantly — self-determination of First Nations peoples and settler folk alike?

Colonization and treaties is a crucial place to start when we talk about Indigenous land claim issues. First Nations engaged in treaties for thousands of years before Europeans came to Turtle Island, or North America. They had times of peace, times of war, but ultimately lived side by side each other on this land. A common understanding of not owning the earth, but rather being stewards of the earth is prevalent in First Nation culture. When Europeans came to Turtle Island; however, they brought with them the doctrine of discovery built on positivity towards curiosity and domination on land discovered. Treaties were signed; however, with a player who did not understand the First Nation’s way of life, their values, and overall relationship to the land. Colonization here in Canada has manifested itself into a systematic attempt to annihilate First Nation culture, values, and land based on a want and need for resources.

Rarihokwats, a Mohawk of the Bear Clan, describes his research to support the land claim of the Young Chippewayan at Stoney Knoll, Saskatchewan.

Rarihokwats, Mohawk legal research from the Bear Clan, describes his work to support the land claim of the Young Chippewayan at Stoney Knoll, Saskatchewan.

We are all treaty people here in so-called Canada. I am a settler ally, and so I must be challenged to act as such. This means stepping away from how I think problems should be remedied, and instead acting in solidarity with First Nations people who are already working towards autonomy and self-determination. This means realizing how I have been complicit with the dominant narrative and seeking out the stories that are far too often silenced in popular discourse.

As a settler ally, I must dedicate myself to taking a stand against social injustices and be an agent of social change rather than an agent of social oppression. As a settler ally, and a treaty person, I must learn about the land that I currently occupy, about the issues in my neighborhood, and about the current fights towards liberation and freedom from oppression.

I live in Waterloo, on Six Nations territory known as the Haldimand Tract. The original tract of land, comprising six miles on each side of the Grand River from source to finish, was promised to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in 1784 for their role as British allies in the American Revolution. Since then, settler society has illegally squatted on the Haldimand Tract, displacing the Six Nations peoples onto what is now only five percent of the original plot of land.

Today, settler society along with our colonial government continues to actively disregard treaties through continued development initiatives and reckless pipeline expansion that endanger not only the land and the river, but also the health of the people.

As a treaty person, settler ally, and resident of Turtle Island, I strongly believe that it is of the utmost importance to remain aware and continue to learn of the many injustices in relation to the legacy of colonialism. This is why I attended the MCC Student Seminar. I need to be continually challenged, as well as continually challenge others, to face a past that is riddled with hidden oppression and to work in solidarity towards a future that holds a vision of wholeness.

As we work for decolonization, may we also strive for a reconciliation of relationships between the oppressors and the oppressed — built on love, respect, and acceptance of all peoples.

A father’s thoughts on International Women’s Day

This week’s blog is written by Dan Leonard, operating principles coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee. He is the proud father of a three-year-old daughter.

As my daughter and I were reading the popular children’s book Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, I was struck that all the machines in the book were referred to as he and him. Obviously assigning gender to inanimate objects can itself be an odd activity. But since the author decided that all strong, rough, hard-working construction vehicles were men, I decided to change the pronoun for every other machine to she and her. Having read the book other times, my daughter at first objected to this “people’s history of heavy equipment,” but she has since grown used to it.

The girls section in a typical toystore.

The girls’ section in a typical toystore.

Having a daughter makes it hard to ignore the social construction of gender. Whether it is clothing or toys, a crowd of pink princesses seems to invade our home on a daily basis, despite our best efforts for balance. Harmless as it may seem that there are no female trucks working at the construction site in a children’s book, it accompanies an absence of stories with girls and women as students, professors, adventurers, pastors, doctors, athletes, problem solvers, creators, heroes, politicians, or leaders.

Indeed, a 2011 study on gender and children’s books found that only 31 percent of children’s books have female central characters, and these characters are often represented in traditional gender roles.

In the coming two weeks the UN Commission on the Status of Women will hold meetings in New York to discuss how well the Millennium Development Goals have addressed issues of gender equity. So it’s a good time to assess where we are globally in the pursuit of gender equity. Unfortunately, there are many reasons to despair. Consider these examples:

  • According to the UN there is no country in the world where women earn on average more than men;
  • While the percentage of women out-of-school is decreasing, enrollment numbers are stalling;
  • Women still bear the brunt of unpaid care;
  • Nearly half of murder cases facing Aboriginal women in Canada remain unsolved
    Two-thirds of illiterate individuals are women;
  • The majority of young people and adolescents do not have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and education;
  • 1 in 3 women will be beaten, abused, or raped in their lifetime;
  • An estimated 100-140 million girls are living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation with FGM most often occurring for girls before the age of 15.

Despite what we know about the importance of women and girls’ participation in development, the stats could go on.

Thankfully there is also good news. In Canada, more women enroll in college and university programs and are more likely to finish these programs with a degree. Globally, the percentage of girls out of school has decreased from 58 percent in 2000 to 53 percent. And apart from the numbers, courageous individuals like Malala Yousafzai challenge our temptation to remain cynical.

A girls school in eastern Bangladesh supported by MCC's Global Family Program.

A girls school in eastern Bangladesh supported by MCC’s Global Family Program.

At MCC we are committed — through one of our guiding principles — to dismantling barriers of gender-based oppression, and working to ensure the participation of all community members in program design, decision-making, and implementation. At the project level in Ethiopia, MCC works with socially and economically marginalized women living with HIV/AIDS in vocational training and income generating strategies. In Palestine, MCC works with women in rural areas to raise the awareness of their legal and civil rights and promote women’s participation in civil society organizations. In Canada and the US, MCC is working with local churches to end domestic violence. These are just some of the ways that MCC works towards gender equity.

As I’ve reflected on these things in the lead up to International Women’s Day on March  8, I’m struck that changing the pronouns of a children’s book most certainly is not going to solve these sorts of global problems, and neither will any single project. But in the face of overwhelming gender disparity, we can start by critically reflecting on the subtle and not so subtle patriarchal narratives that hinder gender equity in our homes, in our workplaces, in our countries, and around the world.