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Empowering women for abundant living

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/Import/Leaders Import Week 4/2180_4154_grassrootsorganizing1

Family planning is not a typical topic of conversation in churches. However, Susan Burton, director of Women's and Children's Advocacy at the General Board of Church and Society, and her team are urging United Methodists to talk about it. Promoting access to family-planning information and services is about saving lives, and stopping unnecessary death and injuries, they say.

Globally, far too many women and girls die or suffer lifetime disabilities due to lack of safe, voluntary family planning services. Also, this fosters child mortality. Increasing family planning services and education can stop these unnecessary deaths and injuries.

Funded by a grant to Church and Society from the United Nations Foundation, the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet (HFHP) initiative educates and advocates both within the church and beyond for funding, programs and policies to support access to maternal health and voluntary family-planning services around the globe. Additionally, HFHP is investing in changing social norms that deny women and girls access to life saving family-planning services.

Through the initiative, Church and Society equips and mobilizes United Methodists to advocate through grassroots organizing and trainings to educate, inspire and empower leaders and other people of faith to take on maternal health and family planning as issues in their congregations or communities.

What do issues around reproductive health and family planning have to do with faith? The answer for United Methodists is found throughout the Social Principles and The Book of Resolutions.

The Social Principles and resolutions address the ways United Methodists are called to engage with society, to live in relationship with God's creation and humanity, and to work toward societies in which each person's value is recognized, maintained and strengthened for all are created in the image of God.

"Access to family planning is often seen through the lens of health care access in the United States," Burton says. "But in those parts of the world where clinics and doctors who are able to provide guidance on family planning or contraception are not easily accessible, the option (for women) to make healthy decisions about their reproductive health is very limited or non-existent."

In 2014, GBCS staff were invited to train young leaders in the Liberia Conference on domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. During the training, one woman kept talking about the importance of family planning. Burton asked why she was committed to educating her community about family planning.

The young woman responded, "My sister told me that I have to finish school because if I don't finish school, I won't be able to get a job, and I won't be able to take care of my children. I won't be able to finish school if I get pregnant."

She recalls another individual in Liberia asking: Why not just use condoms?

"If a woman is being sexually assaulted or raped, she doesn't have the ability to ask the man raping her to use a condom," Burton explains. "It is estimated that 225 million women want to delay pregnancy, but do not have access to these services around the world. Providing these services and sexuality education to prevent unintended pregnancies is central to the work of Healthy Families, Healthy Planet."

Leading to abundant life

The mission of Healthy Families, Healthy Planet states: Healthy Planet project strives for a world in which every woman can plan her children and every family experiences God's promise of abundant life.

"By using our voices to advocate for change," Burton says, "those without access are able to gain education about different family planning methods, access and availability."

How do Christians work toward abundant life for all when women make up half of the world's population, but have less than 1 percent of the wealth and often do not have a voice in some areas of their own lives?

Church and Society is working through its grassroots organizing team. In late 2015, the Women and Children's Advocacy Area launched a new Grassroots Organizing Toolkit in Monrovia in partnership with colleagues in the Liberia Conference. The November launch accompanied a three-and-a-half-day "Train the Trainers" intensive workshop that drew 20 young women and men representing five districts. Their focus was fighting gender-based violence and injustice.

Mobilizing young leaders

The young United Methodist leaders who gathered exemplify changing sentiments around gender-based violence. They represented congregations deeply committed to organizing in their local villages and towns to end sexual gender-based violence. The problem worsened during the recent Ebola crisis, as sexual violence is often closely tied to deep poverty, massive unemployment, government corruption, intense national debt and what organizers have identified as oppressive traditional cultural practices and beliefs.

"To be the church in the world means to be a community of believers redeemed by God from the odds of life, and called out to be the light in our communities and the world at large," says Pauline F. Gartor, one of the attendees. She sees grassroots organizing as "a creative and redemptive intervention in systemic structures of injustices that oppose the freedom and well-being of humanity.

"As light, the church must shine against the odds of society and set at liberty God's people who are oppressed by the devil and his agents," she says.

Gartor took on the challenge of advocating for justice at 17. "As a young leader fighting for justice, transforming unhealthy behaviors and cultural norms and challenging oppressive power structures can be a difficult task," she says.

She credits her success in grassroots organizing for justice to following these practices:

  • Believe in yourself. Nurture the passion for what you are doing.
  • Put God first in your advocacy. Be willing to volunteer and team with others already involved with justice work in order to advocate for change.
  • Be willing to take thoughtful careful risks, no matter how difficult they may be.
  • Do not look down upon yourself because you are young (1 Timothy. 4:12).

Meeting needs

Journeying with those on the ground, creating intentional spaces for building women's leadership and looking at justice issues through a community-organizing lens are some of the goals of the Grassroots Organizing Team. Once local leaders have identified the needs, the organizing team helps build networks by investing in and creating more spaces to develop leaders who are equipped to serve and have a theological understanding.

Dorcas Maranda started the Relief Centre in Mbare, Zimbabwe, because she was inspired by her training from the Grassroots Organizing Team to identify her community's greatest needs.

Mbare has a high percentage of children living with disabilities. Many parents and guardians leave them unattended, tied and locked in the house, while they are away for work and other activities.

The Relief Centre provides care for the children in a safe environment with trained volunteers from the community. It provides for 10 children. Nine can't talk; eight can't feed themselves; seven can't walk; four can't sit. All wear diapers because they are not toilet trained.

Supervising the volunteer mothers are professionals with experience in working with children with disabilities.

Sophia Agtarap is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Nashville, Tennessee.

Begin locally

Susan Burton of the General Board of Church and Society staff offers ways for individual United Methodists to join the work of Healthy Families, Healthy Planet – and invite others to join them.

  • Identify your passion. There are numerous needs in your community. Which ones align with your passion and gifts? Begin there.
  • Remember you are not alone. Identify others also interested in the cause or issue. Join and be a resource for your community, congregation or organization.
  • Ask yourself: How has someone close to you benefited from having access to family planning?
  • Engaging with the initiative does not have to be about politics. Identify alternative ways to educate and advocate.

Additional Resources

Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, May-June 2016.