Women rising up against violence

I was 18 years old and walking home from an evening shift at the ice cream parlour where I worked for the summer months. As I walked down a poorly lit street, a young male jogger appeared. I didn’t pay much attention, until he stopped directly in front of me, dropped his pants, exposed himself and began to masturbate.

I was absolutely terrified. I expected that I was about to be raped, and I froze, unable to move. Eventually, I managed to pass the man and continue on. I forced myself not to run or to look back, thinking that any sign of fear on my part would invite him to do something more harmful. Somehow I got myself home safely.

Although not nearly as serious as much of the violence that women are subjected to around the world, the event traumatized me. For weeks I had nightmares, and for years I felt profound anxiety if I met a man on the sidewalk in the dark. With time, I found healing, though without telling many people or seeking any professional help.

intersections-LogoI had not thought about this experience for a long time, until I took up the latest issue of Intersections, MCC’s quarterly on theory and practice, as well as Sally Armstrong’s recent book, Ascent of Women. Both writings reminded me of the “global phenomenon of gender-based violence” and how it allows perpetrators to exert power and dominance.

In Canada, half of all women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual assault. Across the country, 83 percent of police-reported domestic assaults are against women. Four out of five people murdered by their spouse are women murdered by men. Women with a disability and Indigenous women are at a much higher risk of violence than able-bodied and white women.

Ascent of WomenIn war zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape is used as a weapon, demoralizing and disrupting entire communities. In some traditional contexts, honour killings of women and girls who bring disfavour on their families are still common.  And in places where religious fundamentalists (not only Islamic) are active, women and girls face serious threats for seeking  education and opportunity, and even moving about.

But the news is not all bad. Both Sally Armstrong and the various writers in Intersections describe important ways in which women, and their male allies, are rising up, asserting their power, resisting violence, and bringing about nonviolent change. In Canada, for example, Indigenous women are calling for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women. In eastern Congo, courageous people staff a legal clinic providing human rights and legal advocacy for thousands of rape victims. In a landmark case in Kenya a group of 160 girls successfully sued their government for failing to protect them from sexual assault. In Bangladesh, women enslaved by the sex trade are finding alternate employment and self-respect.

Malala YousefskaiAnd then there is the the amazing and irrepressible Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousefskai, who has become a symbol for the yearning – no, the demand – of girls and young women in her country to go to school. She is only the most visible of many others.

My own experience so many years ago pales in comparison to the violence and abuse suffered by women around the world, but it has given me deep and enduring empathy – as well as righteous outrage – for the many who continue to be victimized in horrific ways. As I learn about the courage and resistance of women, banding together with supportive men, to build cultures of peace, dignity and respect for all, I am filled with profound and grateful hope.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

Another non-report on free trade and human rights in Colombia

This week’s guest blog is by Rebekah Sears, advocacy coordinator for MCC in Colombia. This blog originally appeared in the MCC Latin America Advocacy Blog.

This is getting to be an annual thing — concern about the human rights and social impacts of the Canadian Free Trade Agreement with Colombia (See August 25, 2011; July 30, 2012).

Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Colombia at the inauguration of the FTA in August 2011.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Colombia at the inauguration of the FTA in August 2011.

Last year’s non-report and this year’s bypass

For the second year in a row, the Canadian Government has shrunk away from promises to provide an annual analysis on the situation of human rights in Colombia every spring in relation to the Free Trade Agreement, ratified in August 2011.

In May 2012 a “non-report” was issued, basically stating that not enough time had passed to justify a full report. Several NGOs responded by releasing a shadow report, looking at Canada’s influence in the mining sector as well as other industries.

This year, on June 14, 2013, just before Parliament rose for the summer, a brief report was released stating that there basically is no way to monitor the connections between human rights and free trade.

This is disappointing to say the least, noting the promise of an annual assessment was one of the main reasons the Free Trade agreement was accepted by Parliament in the first place. Ratified under a majority government, the core points of the agreement were engineered under a minority government, including an annual human rights report requirement- a non-negotiable requirement proposed by the opposition.[i]

Map of some Foreign Mining Companies and their Operations in Colombiamining companies in ColombiaWhy the concern?

Canada’s economic involvement in Colombia is significant, notably in the extractive industries, such as oil, gas and mining. Over 50% of extractive companies operating in Colombia are based in Canada.

These industries have all expanded exponentially in Colombia in recent years, giving Canadian companies plenty of influence. These economic activities have not only grown in size, scope and capacity, across the country, but have become very contentious and controversial.

The roots of the continuing armed conflict run deep within Colombian society, covering a wide combination of factors, including acute economic inequality, control of territory and natural resources, power and politics and more. Combined with the significant supply and variety of natural resources, many industries arguably have possible strong ties with some of these ifactors.

According to a 2013 report from the Colombian Government’s Comptroller General, and cited again by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), an overwhelming amount of the forced displacements (87%), human rights violations in general (80%), crimes against labour unionists (78%) and actions against Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations (89%) that are an ongoing part of the armed conflict and general violence are happening in regions rich in oil and mining industries.[ii]

The same report expresses concerns that the mining and extractive industries will and have been slowing down and preventing promised land-restitution processes all over the country, particularly in regions of valuable natural resources.[iii]

 Bogota, the capital of ColombiaThe importance of monitoring

The expansion of these industries and the growing influence of large multinational companies is not the entire cause of the ongoing conflict and violence. There are multiple deep-rooted factors at play.

International trade, and more specifically free trade agreements, are not, in themselves, completely negative things. It’s early on, and still too early to tell.

But that does not mean that the Canadian Government shouldn’t monitor and explore possible impacts of Canadian business in Colombia, especially these rampant accounts of violence in mineral and oil rich regions- areas where Canadian companies are very active. It is clearly not impossible to have some sense of the impacts of Canada’s involvement.

In fact, it should be a top priority to find some way to monitor the impacts on human rights of this agreement, according to Prime Minister Harper’s statement in announcing the ratification of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement:

“Colombia is a key regional partner with Canada in important objectives – spreading democracy, promoting human rights and improving hemispheric security.”[iv]


[i] Campbell Clark, “Conservatives reneged on agreement to study impact of free trade on human rights in Colombia,” Globe and Mail, June 25, 2013: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/try-it-now/try-it-now-politics-insider/?contentRedirect=true&articleId=12798078#dashboard/follows/.

[ii] Luis Jorge Garay Salamanca, “Minería en Colombia: Fundamentos para superar el modelo extractivista,” Contraloría General, gobierno de Colombia, mayo 2013: http://186.116.129.19/c/document_library/get_file?folderId=78918891&name=DLFE-66401.pdf; Rachel Warden and Barbara Wood (CCIC),“Another non-report on human rights and trade with Colombia,” Embassy Magazine, June 26, 2013: http://www.codev.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Colombia-Op-ed-June-2013_Embassy-Magazine.pdf.

[iii] Colombia Reports, “Colombia’s comptroller warns mining could impede land restitution, Colombia Reports, May 11, 2013: http://colombiareports.com/comptroller-warns-that-mining-could-impede-land-restitution-in-colombia/.

[iv] The Honourable Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, “Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada in Bogotá, Colombia,” News Release, Prime Minister’s Office (August 10, 2011): http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media.asp?category=3&featureId=6&pageId=49&id=4258.

Shuffling the team

This past Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper executed a much-anticipated cabinet shuffle. Eight names were dropped from the cabinet table, ten new names were added, and sixteen traded places. Only fourteen ministers remained in the same chairs.

20130715_MDP_01Apart from references to the cabinet table, the most common metaphor used by the media to describe this new slate of ministers was a team.

I have been wondering why I find myself increasingly troubled by this metaphor. What could I, a Mennonite who yearns for a sense of community, have against a collaborative word such as “team”?

I think I am troubled because it is another sign of the extent to which contemporary politics in Canada is being reduced to a competition.

Of course, democracy is by its very nature all about the competition of ideas and, even more basically, a competition between candidates for votes. And, in a democratic system such as our own, it is also about competing political parties with competing platforms. We cannot escape the partisan nature of politics without some troublesome consequences.

But shouldn’t politics also be about more than partisanship? Shouldn’t it also be about much more than party loyalty?

Am I right to be even a little disappointed when Members of Parliament promoted to cabinet are, despite their many other qualifications, described first and foremost as “good team players,” or as people who have demonstrated their ability to “take one for the team”?

Certainly there is no shortage of blame to go around for an overuse of the team metaphor, not to mention the hyper-partisan, adversarial tone of our politics.

After all, the shadow cabinet named by the Leader of the Official Opposition has been referred to as “Team Mulcair.” And all opposition parties clamor to distinguish, and gain attention and support for themselves at the expense of others.

Clearly, media outlets are keen to find, feed, or even create drama and tension in order to attract viewers, readers, and resources. As are an overabundance of pollsters and pundits.

Finally, I think the government is also doing its part to help reduce politics to a fight between competing teams.

For example, this past April, Gordon O’Connor, the (now former) Chief Government Whip argued (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) that backbench MPs should not be able to make statements or ask questions in the House of Commons without the permission of their party. Indeed, he insisted that the Speaker of the House was simply a “referee,” and it was up to the party or “coach” to choose “which player to play at any given time.”

Just yesterday, news broke of a leaked e-mail from the Prime Minister’s Office that contained instructions for departmental staff as they compiled briefing notes for new cabinet ministers. Among other things, these notes were to include a list of “who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders.”

2894_20130715_PG_13To be fair, in a statement following the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on Monday, the Prime Minister emphasized that “this new Ministry will work hard on behalf of all Canadians.”

However, I suspect that many citizens and organizations who have sought to engage the federal government on policy issues have long felt as though they have been avoided. Many would likely agree that to offer constructive criticism increasingly feels like entering the playing field of a competition.

Even politicians have expressed this sentiment in recent years. Exit interviews with 65 former MPs conducted by Samara (a charitable organization working to improve political participation in Canada) highlighted deep frustration with the way political parties manage themselves. Indeed, the greatest challenges these MPs faced in their careers came from their own—not competing—parties.

I wonder what this means for people of faith who pursue their sense of calling to a leadership position in society by running for elected office.

As I listened this week to cabinet ministers swear to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors,” I was reminded of one reason why Mennonites in Canada have historically been reticent to put their name on a ballet: the fear that political involvement would require them to subordinate their allegiance to God to their allegiance to the crown or the state.

If my concern that politics is being reduced to a partisan competition is justified, I wonder if we should be struggling with a different sort of challenge. I wonder if political involvement threatens our allegiance to God not because of the demands of governing, but because of the demands of party politics.

What are the consequences of joining a team?


By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Demolished six times: Beit Arabiya to be resurrected in a new form

This week’s guest blog is by Ryan Rodrick Beiler, a service worker with MCC in Palestine and Israel. This article originally appeared in the Mennonite World Review.

In a panic, Arabiya Shawamreh locked the door to protect her seven children. Israeli soldiers surrounding the house were beating and handcuffing her husband Salim. When the soldiers threw a tear gas grenade through the window and broke down the door, they found Arabiya unconscious. The children fled in all directions as their house was demolished.

“In that demolition, I lost everything. I lost all the memories of my life … pictures, documents, belongings from my childhood. Everything that meant something to me personally,” says Arabiya. “People tried to comfort me, but I couldn’t hear them. It was like mourning. I was sunk into myself, disconnected, preoccupied with what would happen to us, the kids, worried about our future.”

On Nov. 5, Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh stand among the ruins of their family's house, demolished for the sixth time four days earlier in the West Bank town of Anata. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

On Nov. 5, Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh stand among the ruins of their family’s house, demolished for the sixth time four days earlier in the West Bank town of Anata. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

True, Salim had built their house without a permit. Most countries have building codes to maintain sustainable communities, so demolishing “illegal” buildings may seem justifiable. But Salim had limited options. When he was nine, the 1967 war forced his family to flee their 3-story Jerusalem home for a 3×6 meter room in Shu’fat Refugee Camp. After his studies, Salim worked abroad, saved money for nine years, married Arabiya, and returning home, bought land in nearby Anata.

Salim applied for a building permit, but after several years and thousands of dollars in fees, surveyors, and lawyers—without success—he decided to build anyway in 1994. “The ‘peace process’ had by then begun,” he recalls, “And everyone was sure that house demolitions would stop.”

As the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem reports, “Israel has created a situation in which thousands of Palestinians are unable to obtain permits to build on their land, and are compelled to build without a permit because they have no other way to provide shelter for their families.” At the same time, “Thousands of houses were built in [Israeli] settlements without permits. Israel refrained from demolishing these houses, and instead issued retroactive building permits.”

As an act of resistance against such discrimination, the Shawamreh homestead became the first house rebuilt by MCC partner the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) in 1998.

“I supported the idea of rebuilding the house, even though I was scared about going through the trauma of logodemolition again,” says Arabiya. “When the Israeli peace people came and we started to rebuild I was there, rebuilding, with Israelis.”

But three more demolitions took their toll. “I have lost the role of protector of my children,” Salim says tearfully. “I said to them: ‘Don’t worry, I am here. I’ll protect you.’ Do you know what my 9-year-old daughter Wafa said to me? ‘You can’t protect us. We saw what the soldiers did to you when they handcuffed you and threw you outside when they demolished our home.’”

After the fourth demolition in 2003, ICHAD helped the family rent elsewhere while rebuilding their house as a peace center. Named “Beit Arabiya”, meaning “Arabiya’s House”, it became a place where Palestinian and Israeli activists could meet, housed volunteers rebuilding other demolished homes, and hosted hundreds of groups who came to hear its story, including many MCC learning tours.

After nine years, Israeli forces demolished Beit Arabiya yet again in January 2012. And at last year‘s ICAHD summer camp, Palestinian, Israeli, and international volunteers once again celebrated its rebuilding, dancing arm in arm under the banner, “Resisting Occupation, Constructing Peace”.

Four months later, authorities demolished Beit Arabiya for the sixth time.

But like Jesus’ persistent widow in Luke 18, ICAHD remains committed to demanding justice for the Shawamreh family, declaring that their August summer camp (volunteers needed—learn more at www.icahd.org) will once again “resurrect Beit Arabiya”, in a new and different form, ever a focal point of cooperative peacemaking.

Peace made by sharing humility, courage

This week’s guest writer is  Richard Wagamese, author of the highly acclaimed book Indian Horse. Wagamese is from the Ojibway Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario. These reflections originally appeared in Kamloops Daily News.

I was invited by the Mennonite Central Committee to lead a one-day workshop on storytelling as it pertains to peace. The gathering was called Planting Peace and attracted delegates from Cameroon, El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, South Africa, Kenya, Cambodia, Indonesia and Canada. They were primarily Christians with a few Muslims as well. When I made the booking I was excited at the prospect.

But I have been travelling and speaking an amazing amount. It seems that we are hardly ever home and the summer schedule ahead of me becomes even more relentless. So when we boarded the plane to fly to Calgary I was tired. I worried at my energy level and how I would be able to project the requisite enthusiasm for another day.

I needn’t have worried. Camp Velaqua is a Mennonite retreat set in the foothills and one of the most peaceful places we’ve ever been. Stepping out of the car my wife and I were awed by the pastoral calm and the greeting by our hosts was warm, gentle and affirming. We talked about the event and the delegates and I found the spark of creative energy again.

Richard Wagamese

Richard Wagamese at Planting Peace

We spent the day talking about peace. We used the methodology of aboriginal storytelling as the vehicle for promoting discussion. I got the group to randomly choose partners and each pair went off into the woods or to private spots to talk.

Their directions were to ask their partner a personal question that would require a detailed answer. They were to listen without taking notes and bring the stories they gathered back to the group.

Once back in our circle they volunteered one at a time to share the story given to them. But instead of simply relating the story I asked each of them to tell their story as though they were the person who’d given it to them. They were to literally become that person. They would start with “My name is . . .” and relate the story in first person. What happened was pure spiritual magic.

The stories came out brimming with emotion. They came out reflecting the life and experience of the source.

They came out honest, gut-bucket real and powerful.

There were tears. There was laughter and there was a genuine connection between the teller, the giver of the story and the circle of people listening. The power of story brought us all into the spirit of community and we were all overwhelmed by it.

As each person told the other’s story as though they were them, that person became real, vivid, and essential.

When the other partner took their turn a bond was created that felt unshakable.

They became a part of each other, listener and teller made bigger by virtue of the story of the other they carried. Despite differences in background culture and ideology, everyone was embraced by the power of knowing another human being deeply.

We were swept up in the idea of what makes peace possible. Together we learned that peace is not something that you create. Rather, it’s something that’s born in you through acts of humility and courage that lead to faith.

We need to share our stories. Absolutely. Because peace is not a thing created by political action — it’s a reality inspired by spiritual energy.

Knowing that, the road ahead seems a lot less daunting.