In January, World Relief co-hosted a consultation on “Development, Gender, and Christianity” with Wheaton College and the Imago Dei Fund. Faith-based non-profit staff, church leaders, advocacy experts and academics gathered together to discern why—despite greater awareness that investing in women is good for global development*—things aren’t improving for so many women around the world.
The wise women and men present had decades of collective experience with human trafficking, sexual abuse, women’s and children’s health and developing women as individuals and leaders[DN1] . Before we rolled up our sleeves and got to our important work, we allowed ourselves a moment to lament: “How much longer before every woman, created in the image of God, is free to express the image God has placed in her?”
Realities speak to the shrinking spaces women occupy in countries and communities around the world, even in our churches. Violence against women occurs in countries and communities around the world, and even in our churches. The recent #churchtoo movement proved what statistics already show—the rate of sexual and physical assaults in church communities isn’t less than in the rest of society. Globally, 1 in 3 women—churched or not—have a story to tell. White women in the US earn an average 82 cents to men’s dollar. But in many countries, the pay gap is even wider; women earn an average of only 60-75% of men’s wages despite the benefits a woman’s paycheck has to her family and community. Researchers estimate that this year 12 million girls and young women will marry before their 18th birthday, some as young as 10 years old.
Clearly, much work remains to be done.
As a little girl, my dad, a filmmaker, taught me about the “blue hour.” He would pine for this moment when, on a cloudless sky, the red of day and blue of night make room for one another, intersecting to create an irresistible quality of light.
Light is not at its most beautiful at midday or midnight, but rather, at the moment when one is making room for the other. The “blue hour” echoes a lesson we find over and over in Scripture: we are to love and prefer one another; we are to make room for one another.
The woman with the issue of blood had no room among the crowd. Rejected by her community—unclean and unwanted—she had to work hard to get to Jesus, to reach out her hand and touch the hem of his garment. Without even turning, Jesus knew that this woman needed his help. He was her last and only hope. Jesus does not turn away from her need because of her status. Instead, Jesus makes room.
In Luke 22: 25 – 27, Jesus declared: “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects… But I am among you as one who serves.” The King of kings did not come to recline at the table, but to kneel and wash the feet of his disciples. Likewise, Jesus did not come to uphold hierarchies but to break down centuries of injustice.
Jesus comes to us today too, to break down power structures in our communities, to elevate those society overlooks, and to make room for women.
All around us, women are defying the odds. Like the woman who longed to be healed, they’re pressing through crowds toward health and safety for themselves and their children, toward education and into board rooms and pulpits. Some are too tired to press through the crowds. Many don’t see a way through anymore and it is our responsibility to press toward them.
Men and women—working side by side—can transform the role and experience of women in our societies. The idea of elevating women may be threatening, but men actually benefit when women are empowered to lead. When women and men collaborate in decision-making, households, communities, and institutions become more productive and inclusive. Men’s relationships with their wives, children, and communities become more fulfilling. And, men are able to be who God is calling them to be instead of conforming to what society wants them to be.
We are not all called to become activists. But we can all co-labor toward this transformation in our own communities. It begins with responding to the invitation to think deeply about how we can create more room for women in the spaces we are already in.
At World Relief, we are committed to crafting new spaces for women to flourish. We are doing this in simple, tangible, daily ways—in our programming and throughout the organization.
As the most vulnerable in most communities, women are impacted by our programming. We are working increasingly around metrics that measure maximum impact on women and girls to guide our program design.
We recently signed the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual Statement in recognition that churches and Christian communities are not exempt from putting women at risk of sexual abuse. Our entire staff and leadership are participating in non-harassment training to ensure that male and female staff work side by side in an equitable, non-threatening way.
We are intentionally creating opportunities for women leaders at World Relief. Along with others, we recognize the lack of women in top tiers of leadership in the entire faith-based NGO sector as a problem, and are taking practical steps to correct it within our own organization.
We are continuing to partner with the Wheaton consultation and other collaborations. Much remains to be learned about the important roles women must play at all levels of communities and organizations, and we welcome the opportunity to learn and grow with other development organizations.
We can each do one thing today to elevate a girl or woman. Perhaps this means stepping aside and giving some of our space to her. The question is: are we willing to make room?
* “Aid programs that provide women opportunities to better their health, education, and well-being have effects far beyond a single individual. A woman multiplies the impact of an investment made in her future by extending benefits to the world around her, creating a better life for her family and building a strong community.” (USAID: https://www.usaid.gov/infographics/50th/why-invest-in-women )
Eeva Simard is the Project Director of Human Capital at World Relief. For the past ten years, she's worked with multiple non-profits, where she has been committed to excellence in project management and communication, common sense leadership and the empowerment and training of colleagues, particularly helping women's voices be heard at top levels of leadership.