A Discussion with Musimbi Kanyoro, CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women

With: Musimbi Kanyoro

June 20, 2011

Background: Musimbi Kanyoro and Katherine Marshall spoke by telephone on June 20, 2011, following up by email. The context was the Berkley Center and WFDD exploration of faith dimensions of global efforts to address maternal mortality. Dr. Kanyoro brings a rare combination of rigorous experience in policy and advocacy in secular institutions and deep knowledge of the world of faith institutions at national and international levels, especially ecumenical institutions. She thus reflects on the challenges of raising the profile and priority of both maternal mortality and relationships between men and women, within the faith communities which so earnestly profess their concern for human welfare and motherhood. The fact that few faith communities are at the forefront of efforts to address maternal mortality reflects, she observes, the fact that the issue touches on gray areas that divide faith communities, one from another and internally. The links between maternal health and women’s sexuality and reproduction are the reason. There is also a deep gulf between what is preached and what is done: church theology is generally fine on the topic of maternal mortality, but the practice is poor. Yet she believes that indeed faith communities belong at the forefront of efforts at all levels to address this priority issue. In strategic terms, a combination of global efforts, which, however painful, define a framework, and local advocacy and example are what is needed. Such a strategy combines inspiration and the power to shame and goad action.

You are a rare person who has worked actively in the worlds of reproductive health at a global level, and in several leading faith institutions. With your central focus on the welfare of women, you can offer special perspective on the Berkley Center review of issues that link and arise from maternal mortality and faith.

Let me say first that these are issues that keep me awake at night. I am a practicing Christian, member of a church, and that is important to me. Part of what I struggle with, as a practicing faith person, is precisely this question: how to explain why churches and faith leaders do not do more for women and particularly women who die and suffer because they are women. I believe strongly that God cares for these issues; God wants women to live, as the abundance of life belong to all people, people of all faiths, and all genders. So I congratulate you on taking on these issues.

Your journey has been an extraordinary one. How did it start?

My story is set out in my book, Introducing Feminist Hermeneutics: An African Perspective. In a nutshell, I was born into a family of 10 children, to parents who were both deeply involved in health and medical care. I grew up initially in a village environment. We moved to different places as my parents’ careers took different paths, and I spent some years in boarding schools. The experience there of interacting with other girls gave me a strong beginning and shaped my views towards women. Important lessons that I took from that experience were the importance of knowing yourself, and understanding your own qualities. Hanging around other girls was a constant reminder that we are truly the bosses of ourselves.

How did you come to the United States and Texas for graduate school?

I studied at the University of Nairobi, and developed a keen interest in Africa and in linguistics, as a path to understanding different cultures. I knew that I wanted to do graduate studies, but had no firm plans on where when I graduated. I decided to take a year to do something interesting, and found a job with the United Bible Societies attached to a Dutch linguist who mentored me and introduced me to a very passionate American linguist who saw possibility in me and spearheaded my graduate studies, which was sponsored by the Bible Society of the Netherlands and the United Bible Societies. I went to Texas because it had a good linguistics program, and that I knew that I would be able to study with professors that had an interest in African languages.

After I finished my Ph.D., I went to Harvard Divinity School as a visiting scholar to study Hebrew and the Old Testament. I then returned to Africa, and worked there for about six years with the United Bible Societies, doing linguistic field work in several African countries and also training Bible translators in theory and practice of translation.

In 1987, I moved to Geneva to head the program for Women in Church and Society at the Lutheran World Federation, mostly at the request of Lutheran Churches in Tanzania and Kenya who wanted to have a presence in the ecumenical movement. It was while I was in the middle of the ecumenical movement, involved in various commissions of the World Council of Churches, women’s ecumenical meetings, etc that I decided to begin external studies towards a doctorate of divinity with the San Francisco Theological Seminary. I worked towards my doctorate of ministry because I was seeking a deeper grounding in theology as a foundation for my ecumenical work.

What was your experience then with faith communities?

Faith Communities are far more engaged in the welfare and health of society than they get credit for. They indeed do a lot of good and I wish that these positive aspects could be given their place in our broader understanding of the welfare of our world.

Our sense is that the efforts of faith communities as a whole on maternal mortality are muffled, less than they should be given the theologies and call of faith communities to care for families and individual welfare. What, in your view, is the cause?

When it comes to the area of sex and reproductive consequences as well as the status of women in society and in faith communities, one starts to notice a whole set of grey areas. Faith communities cannot speak as one on the topic. There are thus a lot of individual views and different, often dogmatic positions. The reason is that anything involving, however indirectly, sexuality in women is sensitive and divisive. When it comes to reproductive health, the areas are even greyer. That said, focusing on maternal health can help engage those who are afraid of reproductive health. But even on this topic, when you push harder, and note that women die from unsafe abortions, from bleeding linked to pregnancy, to the frequency and number of children they bear, and from neglect and inadequate care, you still find people who do not want to take these hard facts to their logical and theological conclusion. Maternal health is about keeping mothers alive and that is acceptable to churches, but they stop short of addressing the causes of maternal mortality.

These hesitations and conflicting instincts and practices apply also to women within churches, and I would say especially to evangelical women. It is not just the parson, the pastors and the men. Even women pastors are caught in this issue. They often don’t know how far to go. These tensions lie behind many contradictory messages and actions.

This applies also for an issue like child marriage because early marriage and maternal mortality are linked. Many girls die from early pregnancies because their bodies are not ready for birthing. We don’t even have statistics because we have not cared enough to cry about such deaths. In my work with the Packard Foundation it has been a joy to join the effort of the foundation in supporting the raising of the marriage age in the countries where we work. Delaying marriage keeps girls and young women safe, so it provides a useful frame.

Turning to the broader topic of links between development and faith, are you familiar with the work of my organization, the World Faiths Development Dialogue, that was founded by Jim Wolfensohn and Lord Carey? Many institutions working for women have an interest in working with faith institutions but also many doubts. Many hesitations greeted Wolfensohn’s initiative in the World Bank and that still haunts the work.

Yes indeed. It was one of the best and most courageous moves that Wolfensohn took during his time at the World Bank. I listened to him speak recently (on the topic of his autobiography) and was struck by how many people he was meeting privately and his constant efforts to reach out to new constituencies, including those of faith. The Bank was far ahead of its time, so it is sad that it is hesitant and pulling back on what offered such promise.

The Elders are working to engage religious leaders and are elaborating their strategy. In your view would it make most sense (and this applies both to child marriage and to maternal mortality) to focus sharply on a country (like Ethiopia, where the Elders met recently) or on senior leadership and global institutions?

The “Elders” group’s new focus on this area is welcome, and it offers great promise.

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive and indeed both are essential.

There is much benefit in the multilateral efforts to achieve consensus statements and initiatives. However painful and slow, these efforts do create some ways of discussing the agenda in places where there are hesitations of tepid action. People are too embarrassed to be too negative when there is a global agreed framework. They cannot always pick out simply what they want. When there are resolutions, advocates in countries have something to hang on to. For example, when there are agreements that rape of women by the military is a bad thing, or child labor should be ended, that is a benchmark. Of course, at these levels, getting agreement can take a lot of time and effort, but it is not a waste of time. Even people who did not have ways to approach these issues in their countries do recognize the importance of global resolutions, even if they do not say it loudly.

But change only happens when it is contextualized at the local level. It needs to have a place, a geography, a law, and/or a practice that people can chase and act on. That’s where things happen.

If we, or the Elders, were to choose to do only one of the two, it could not lead to success. Thus there is a need to keep the heat on for the broad agendas, but also to act on the local, for example in a place like Ethiopia. Another reason for the global approach is that in practice geography does not limit anything completely. We have seen too many cases where change in one area may look promising but the rest of the country or region does not change. But focusing on countries is vital because countries have full authority on policy matters. A country can say something (like ending FGC or raising the age of marriage) is not good for us in our country. But if there is action across many countries and also a global framework of standards, there is a little bit of shame. Countries do take note of the reports that they must submit at the end of a period, to the United Nations. They are also aware of the shadow reports, by private bodies, that comment on performance. This does act to make people behave better.

In short, one can see that a group like the Elders needs to be present in a local area, but they should not be limited in their focus by that one geography. To be seen at all and to bring about change such groups need to be seen to rise above nations.

Are you involved in several ongoing efforts to engage faith communities on issues of family planning and child spacing? One is based at Georgetown University, another with the UN Foundation.

I am not familiar with the Georgetown work, but the UN Foundation effort reflects a common endeavor, and has the support of several private foundations, including Packard.

What in your view are the most promising areas where partnerships between faith and secular institutions and among faith institutions can truly help advance the maternal health agenda? Do you see promising areas of leadership that could move things forward?

I have not had much chance to work directly and specifically with religious groups since I moved to the United States in 2007. However, in my earlier work I saw many inspiring examples of leadership and practice on HIV/AIDS. There, many religious groups went well beyond the limits of their faith, breaking through and acting in remarkable ways. They realized long ago, working on the ground, with people affected by HIV/AIDS, that the use of condoms helps people. So group after group just went ahead and did it, not waiting for any higher level stamp of approval. They did not question the faith or the church, and they did not encourage people to leave their churches. From this I take the sense that people within religions are sensible, and they will do what is right when the circumstances are right. They rarely feel forced to do what the religion or leader may want of say if they disagree. Thus many feel that their official church positions on family planning are quite misplaced. And people have choices and they make them. I take the example of South America, a region which is basically Catholic. But what we see there are small families. Individuals have plainly made up their own mind to make their choices despite the official views of the Catholic Church.

Do you have a personal message about engaging faith communities on these topics?

I came to my own actions, within the church, because of what I knew about women’s experiences. When I saw, within churches, women being condemned when they had aborted, treated as unclean when they were raped or abused, I began to question the theology I was hearing. How could women be blamed? They were not the ones who did it to themselves or their sisters. Why were the churches not helping the women through these turmoils and the issues that so trouble them. No one wants to be raped. When you go through that kind of experience and reflection, then you come out with another way to look at these matters, in theology and in practice.

I think we need to stay within our faith communities and engage from our experiences as people struggling to be stewards of God’s mission. We need to define that and I am sure women are part of God’s agenda.

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