Child marriage, prostitution, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy and poverty are sad realities for many women in Africa and other developing countries.
Two young women who have escaped the cycle of poverty and abuse spoke to members of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society during the agency's spring meeting to appeal for help for women in their home countries. Their accounts spurred the board to pass a resolution condemning child marriage.
Kakenya Ntaiya, a native of Kenya, Africa, spoke to board members about defying the cultural practice of child marriage and about the girls in her village who have suffered from the custom.
In the rural village where Ntaiya was born, the practice of child marriage is common. She was engaged at age 5.
Ntaiya, the oldest of eight daughters, prayed during her lunch breaks at primary school because she knew as soon as she reached puberty her father would force her to be married.
Female circumcision is also a common practice, and she was scheduled to undergo the procedure as soon as she finished primary school.
"I asked my dad if I could wait until after I passed the national exam," she says. He didn't think there was any chance she would pass the exams because he knew she had no time to study.
"I prayed and read my Bible and told God, 'You have said everything is possible so make this possible.'" She passed the national exam with high scores. Again, she negotiated with her father to continue her education.
"I made him promise in public that I could continue my education," she says. Eventually she finished secondary school, and through a friend, who attended school in the United States, applied and was accepted at Randolph Macon College, a United Methodist-related institution in Ashland, Va. Today she is pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Pittsburgh.
She has not forgotten her village and the childhood friends who have been forced into marriage and have no hope for a future. She plans to return and build a girl's boarding school and clinic.
"There is so much the United Methodist Church can do to help," she says. "Prayers help. Sponsor a girl to go to school, make connections.
"Imagine your daughters or other children you know being forced into marriage at 9 years old," she said. "Imagine them pregnant at 12."
Ntaiya also spoke about the painful subject of obstetric fistula, which happens to many young women who have children before their bodies are ready. Obstetric fistula results when a young mother's vagina, bladder and or/rectum tear during childbirth, a condition that causes urine and feces leakage.
"The mother is left with a wound," she says. "They start smelling bad, and they are taken away from the village." The condition can be easily treated and prevented.
Board issues statement
The board passed a statement on child marriage, calling upon all United Methodists to "critically exam our own societies' gender norms and constructions. United Methodists everywhere must listen and learn from each other."
The statement also calls on the international community to continue working toward gender equality in all realms.
"We especially and emphatically re-emphasize our call for the United States to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.
"The United States is the only country to have signed CEDAW but refused to ratify it, thus remaining unaccountable to its agreements. This refusal is incompatible with Christian teaching that calls us to advocate for the world's most vulnerable, women and children."
Desperation in Liberia
Chenda Innis, daughter of Bishop John Innis of Liberia, told board members about the oppression of women in her home country.
Prostitution among teenage girls is high, she said, because of the lack of other means for women to earn a living.
"Young ladies flood the airport to trade sex for $20," she said. "$20."
"It is saddening and heartbreaking," she continued. "Such beautiful young women have to resort to such things to survive."
Innis and her family escaped from Liberia when she was 16 years old, and she has not returned since. She plans to go back home once she has earned a master's of divinity and theological studies degree at Wesley Theological School, a United Methodist seminary in Washington.
The election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has brought hope to Liberia, Innis says.
"Through the years, everything has been male dominated, but thanks be to God, things are taking a drastic turn now that we have a woman president."
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].