Women of Courage—then and now
A reflection on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women by Jennifer Henry
Their names are Yolanda, Vernie, Chantal, Fahima, Lilia, Zaynab, Wafa, Theresa, and Jill–women whose contexts are diverse, but whose stories similarly resonate with courage and heart. Whether in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or in Palestine, in Sudan or in Indigenous communities in Canada, in Colombia or in the Philippines—these women share a fierce commitment to protect and nurture the lives of women and children, in places of conflict, or in some cases, of terror.
They provide human rights’ training to women and girls, give legal recourse to daughters who have been raped, offer protection and hope to mothers of missing or imprisoned children, and confront power structures that violate human rights and foster violence. KAIROS is privileged to accompany these women of courage. Through research, advocacy and financial support, we hope to strengthen their capacity to build durable peace from the ground up.
Their names were Shiphrah and Puah—midwives in the Egypt of Exodus 1. They lived in a place and time that, like modern day Colombia or DRC, would be labelled a human rights disaster. Fuelled by a myth of scarcity, the king of Egypt peddled in fear, targeting the growing Hebrew population with a strategy of terror. Called before the Pharaoh, the midwives are told to implement his terrible plan of killing Hebrew baby boys. But these women who “feared God”, defied the king and let the baby boys live. When summoned to give account they responded with courageous cleverness: “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive” (Exodus 1: 17-18).
Like contemporary women of courage, these midwives defined themselves by their essential choice—a choice made far before they were summoned to the court of Pharaoh. Their vocation to accompany women and children so transformed them that they were compelled into civil disobedience that risked their own lives. Like women human rights defenders today, the midwives understood their place in the “big picture”, resisting systemic policies of harm and terror–what in ancient Egypt proved to be an attempt at genocide. Like the women we accompany today, they were far from naive about power, but rather courageous and ingenious in the face of it.
On November 25, we are invited to strengthen our resolve in the global struggle for women’s rights as we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Activists for gender justice have marked this day since 1981, in remembrance of the brutal 1960 assassination of the three Mirabal sisters, advocates in the Dominican Republic who were seeking a better life for their people. In Canada, November 25 leads also to December 6 and the 21st anniversary of the murders of 14 women at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal. At these times, let us remember women of courage everywhere who put their lives at risk to protect others from violence, striving to partner with them anew in their struggle.
For their acts of courage, Shiphrah and Puah experienced the “kindness” of God. May our living and loving God continue to wrap today’s women of courage in kindness: Yolanda, Vernie, Chantal, Fahima, Lilia, Zaynab, Wafa, Theresa, and Jill, and so many more unnamed. May faith in God compel us into a journey of accompaniment that transforms us as it did the midwives. And may we build a movement that births a peaceful future for women and children everywhere.