By Kay Warren
On March 7, 2013, I had the opportunity to be on a panel entitled, “US Policy Priorities for Women’s Global Health in the Second Obama Term,” at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, DC. The event was to highlight International Women’s Day (March 8), by focusing attention on issues that directly affect women’s health and well-being.
There were presentations from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Christie Turlington Burns of Saving Mothers, Giving Life; Kristie Mikus, the PEPFAR county director in Zambia; Dr. Phil Nieburg and Carla Koppell, the Senior Advisor for Women’s Equality and Empowerment at USAID. My topic was, “The Rwandan Faith Community Response to Women’s Health and Well-Being.”
Saddleback Church’s PEACE Plan has been active in Rwanda since 2005, and in partnership with the churches of Rwanda – and in many instances the government of Rwanda – we have collaborated in efforts around HIV&AIDS, orphan care, poverty reduction, illiteracy, clean water, land grabbing, training community healthcare workers, leadership development and church health. More recently, we have expanded our efforts to include three more issues that directly affect women’s health and well-being:
· HPV Vaccinations. More than 135,000, 12-15 year old girls have been vaccinated against HPV in Rwanda in the last two years through the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon Initiative. In the churches with which we partner with, we encourage the pastors to promote the HPV vaccination. Because the vaccine is new to Rwanda, we have witnessed an ongoing suspicion of Western vaccinations as well as fear of a vaccine related to a sexually transmitted disease.
But the pastors who are at the community level can be “legitimizers,” trusted sources of information in every congregation who can dispel myths and stigma. Through the PEACE Plan’s Clinical Church- which is an effort to link the church to healthcare at the grassroots level, pastors are becoming powerful allies for better health for the women and girls of their congregations.
· Economic Empowerment. Since 2008, more than 300 savings groups have been established through local churches. Each group sets its own rules and standards for participation. Most require a “seed” donation of 5,000 Rwanda francs ($3 US). The group decides how they want to use the shared savings. It is an incredible wealth-creation vehicle for rural women who live in extreme poverty. Since 2008, they have saved $1 million US!
· Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The statistics are shocking. According to the World Health Organization, among women aged 15-44 years, GBV accounts for more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic injuries, and war put together.
Through the Orphan Care Initiative, the Rwandan pastors have been exposed to training on GBV. Last week, at a presentation by the CDC to my colleague and 20 lay social workers being trained by Saddleback, one pastor reported that he used to preach that a woman needed to endure beatings when her husband was drunk because that was her role as a wife. After just one training last year, he changed his mind entirely. He met with his denominational leaders and now has a program at his church that includes volunteers going as a group to confront men who are threatening or harming women and children. They now report abuse to the authorities, bring violence out into the open of the community and have created a safe place for women to go in the community to find safety in an emergency.
The faith community – the church – has a vital role to play in creating better lives for women and girls – from vaccinations, to economic empowerment, to protecting them from gender-based violence. This is the church at its best, putting faith into action.