UN Sunday: “Celebrating the Day of the Girl”

Lifting Up the Girl Child:
A Sermon inspired by the United Nations International Day of the Girl 2016
By Rev. Megan Lynes
October 23, 2016


Opening Words


By Patrick T O’Neill

Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors: “Kasserian Ingera,” one would always say to another. It means, “And how are the children?”

It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children’s well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, “All the children are well.” Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. “All the children are well” means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young.

I wonder how it might affect our consciousness of our own children’s welfare if in our culture we took to greeting each other with this daily question: “And how are the children?” I wonder if we heard that question and passed it along to each other a dozen times a day, if it would begin to make a difference in the reality of how children are thought of or cared about in our own country.

I wonder if every adult among us, parent and non-parent alike, felt an equal weight for the daily care and protection of all the children in our community, in our town, in our state, in our country… I wonder if we could truly say without any hesitation, “The children are well, yes, all the children are well.”

What would it be like… if the minister began every worship service by answering the question, “And how are the children?” If every town leader had to answer the question at the beginning of every meeting: “And how are the children? Are they all well?” Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear their answers? What would it be like? I wonder..



Excerpts from Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Laureate Lecture 2014[1]

On October 9, 2012, a group of Taliban stormed onto a school bus in Pakistan and shot a 15-year-old girl, wounding two others as well. The targeted victim was Malala Yousafzai, who had outraged the Taliban by taking to the blogosphere to advocate for the rights of women, especially for the right of girls in her region to an education. She had been speaking out since the age of 11, and they thought was time to silence her. The New York Times reported that a bullet was lodged in Malala’s brain, and it was unclear if she would survive—or, if she survived, what her quality of life might be going forward.  But she did survive, and the world has been permanently altered for her courage and vision.

On 10 October 2014, Yousafzai was announced as the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education. Having received the prize at the age of 17, Yousafzai is the youngest ever Nobel laureate.  Here are some of her words from her acceptance speech that night.

“Some people call me the girl who was shot by the Taliban.

As far as I know, I am just a committed and even stubborn person who wants to see every child getting quality education, who wants to see women having equal rights and who wants peace in every corner of the world.

When my world suddenly changed, my priorities changed too.  I had two options. One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one. I decided to speak up.

I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not.

Though I appear as one girl, one person, who is 5 foot 2 inches tall, if you include my high heels…

I am not a lone voice, I am many.

I am Malala. But I am also Shazia.

I am Kainat.

I am Kainat Soomro.

I am Mezon.

I am Amina. I am those 66 million girls who are deprived of education.

It is not time to tell the world leaders to realise how important education is – they already know it – their own children are in good schools.  Now it is time to call them to take action for the rest of the world’s children.

Dear sisters and brothers, dear fellow children, we must work… not wait. Not just the politicians and the world leaders, we all need to contribute. Me. You. We. It is our duty.

Let us become the first generation to decide to be the last generation that sees empty classrooms, lost childhoods, and wasted potentials.

Let this be the last time that a girl or a boy spends their childhood in a factory.

Let this be the last time that a girl is forced into early child marriage.

Let this be the last time that a child loses life in war.

Let this be the last time that we see a child out of school.

Let this end with us.

Let’s begin this ending … together … today … right here, right now. Let’s begin this ending now.”


The Sermon

Scrolling through Facebook yesterday I came across a quote…  “Today’s modern woman: Clean house.  Healthy dinner on the table, (at dinner time!) fit, trim, and well-groomed.  Works full time.  Laundry done and put away.  Great sex life.  Pick any two!”

On a more serious vein, how many of you had a chance to listen to Michelle Obama’s speech last week?  If you haven’t had a chance yet, I commend it to you.

Michelle Obama’s epic speech was a watershed moment in our national conversation about gender equality.  She addressed Donald Trump’s boasts about sexually attacking women, saying “I know it’s a campaign, but this isn’t about politics. It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong,”  As I listened I could feel a tight knot within my stomach releasing.  At last, a public figure, the First Lady of the United States no less, was stating that no woman deserves to be treated with disrespect.  I agree with Michelle, that every single decent man I know is against sexist “locker room talk,” and would never want his daughters or female friends to receive any kind of rude or hurtful treatment.  And in that way, I count myself lucky to be around feminists of all genders.  At the same time, like many of us in this room, I could start my own personal long list of the put-downs, lewd comments, gropings, and even more.  These kinds of painful experiences are so common to so many of us in America that sometimes they sound normal.  But we know they aren’t right.

When I think about the ways our nation is wrestling with sexism in politics, I am in some ways relieved that these issues are coming to the fore.  There are very serious issues of violence and mistreatment of women and girls that happen all over the world, and the U.S is an environment with a context and its own a set of difficulties, just like each country on the planet. The women’s movement in the United States, intrepid and varied through the years, has moved us all forward in leaps and bounds, but we still have far to go.  I found it ironic that while our country focused our national news on the current depressing sexual “mishegas,” the Obamas were hosting an international event at the Whitehouse far more worthy of our attention.  I had never even heard of it.  So I figured let’s tell that story today.

As Michelle Obama mentioned, on Oct 11th, intelligent and courageous young women from all over the world gathered to celebrate the International Day of the Girl.  This annual event, started by the United Nations in 2012, is to celebrate, champion and bring awareness to the rights of 1.1 billion girls all over the world.  Malala Yousafzai, the children’s and women’s rights activist who was shot that same year, exemplifies the message that girls’ progress is good not only for girls, but also for families, communities, and society at large.  When we invest in girls’ health, safety, education and rights – in times of peace and crisis – we empower them to reach for their dreams and build better lives for themselves and their communities.[2]

In his first State of the Nation address, in 1994, President Nelson Mandela declared: “Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”  Mandela said these words just one year before the 4th World Conference on Women held in Beijing.

“The Conference, which brought together almost 50,000 men and women, focused on the cross-cutting issues of equality, development and peace, and analyzed them from a gender perspective. It emphasized the crucial links between the advancement of women and the progress for society as a whole. It reaffirmed clearly that societal issues must be addressed from a gender perspective in order to ensure sustainable development.

The overriding message of the Fourth World Conference on Women was that the issues are global and universal. Deeply entrenched attitudes and practices perpetuate inequality and discrimination against women, in public and private life, in all parts of the world. Accordingly, implementation requires changes in values, attitudes, practices and priorities at all levels. The Conference signaled a clear commitment to international norms and standards of equality between men and women; that measures to protect and promote the human rights of women and girl-children as an integral part of universal human rights must underlie all action; and that institutions at all levels must be reoriented to expedite implementation.  Governments and the UN agreed to promote the “mainstreaming” of a gender perspective in policies and programs.”[3]

The more I read about the work of the United Nations and thought about Malala’s life and death situation in Pakistan, the more it became clear to me that comparing and grading different forms of sexism is not useful. Comparing and grading the sexism in different countries and societies does not lead to more effective work against sexism. Although being killed for being a girl differs greatly from being belittled for being a girl, we need to put our attention on ending all forms of sexist behavior, not on comparing the various kinds. A woman may, understandably, feel fortunate if a certain form of sexism is not acted out at her, but it makes no sense to feel superior because of it. All forms of sexism, along with the internalized recordings that result from them, are enforced by oppressive societies. All are harmful to all humans.

Last summer my best friend Nazish and I went to Water Country for an afternoon.  She wore a swimsuit that is like a thin jogging suit, it covers her arms and legs and a little hood pulls up over her hair.  She was comfortable and cool, as the suit was wet, and of course she didn’t get sunburned.  Other than the stares she got at the poolside, she was completely happy with her attire.  I on the other hand, am used to a lifelong experience of sunburns, (I simply never tan,) the shaving nonsense, and my own uneasiness with showing so much of my skin!  I know some people like to attract attention, but it mostly embarrasses me.  “I hate swimsuits,” I bemoaned to my friend.  “Well…” she said with a grin.  So the day before our outing I purchased a spiffy Muslim swim suit!  At last I was covered up in a way that felt unfamiliar but a great relief.  I felt protected in more ways than I’d ever guessed I would, and there we stood, happy as clams at the top of the terrifying Geronimo slide, focusing on the fun, and not on being self-conscious.  Certainly, I too became the target of some Islamophobia, but to be honest the trade was worth it to me.  The message I learned from the experience was not that any one way of dressing is more correct, or even more liberated.  It was simply that as women we deserve the choice to dress as we please, and that our choices should be respected.  It brought me to tears when the police on the French beach in August made the Muslim woman remove her long sleeved shirt and scarf, because they feared her difference.  She was left humiliated in clothing never intended to be worn alone out in public.

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Women’s Conference.  Irina Bokova, Director-General of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, spoke these words at the Women in Parliament Forum 2015 “Empowering Women Leadership.”

“There has been tremendous progress across the world since 1995. Maternal mortality has been cut by almost half. There have been strong steps towards parity for girls and boys in primary school. More and more women are active in politics. Africa, for one, boasts 14 out of the world’s 46 countries where women account for more than a quarter of Parliamentarians.

The Economist magazine estimated the increase of employment of women in developed countries during the last decade has added more to global growth than China. But steep challenges remain. Women represent only one in five parliamentarians. Only 20 national leaders in the world are women. Five of the world’s parliaments have no women representatives, and there are eight governments with no women ministers at all.

The situation is stark in education. Girls and women are still the majority of out-of-school children, youth and illiterate adults. There are 31 million girls who should be in primary school but are not, and the number is higher for the secondary. By 2011, only 63 percent of countries had achieved gender parity at primary level, and only 38 percent of countries at secondary level.

In sub-Saharan Africa, if trends continue, the richest boys will achieve universal primary completion in 2021 – while the poorest girls will wait until 2086. Across the world, there remain 493 million illiterate women. Too many girls, in too many countries, are held back because they are girls. They are forced to work, married off, taken away from school.”[4]

Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls is one of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, which aim to tackle poverty and inequality.  As a people of faith who affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, we join our voices with those who need solidarity.  “And how are the children?” we ask.  We are not in a society free from the burdens of patriarchy, and we must fight our own battles, but we are also part of a global effort to improve the lives of women and girls on the international scene.

This month the UN revealed that Wonder Woman has been named as the United Nations’ honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls, using the slogan “think of all the wonders we can do.” The character, first seen in print 75 years ago, will front a campaign promoting women’s rights and gender equality.  The campaign will highlight examples of “women and girls who have made and are making a difference every day by overcoming barriers and beating the odds to reach their goals.”[5]

However, many people are asking why the UN was not able to find a real-life woman to serve as the ambassador. UN officials replied that “The focus was on her feminist background, being the first female superhero in a world of male superheroes and that she always fought for fairness, justice and peace.”

More than 1,000 of people, including many UN staff members have signed an online petition to express that Wonder Woman was not an appropriate choice, noting the character’s physique as: “a large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee high boots – the epitome of a “pin-up” girl”.  Feminist icon Gloria Steinem told CBS she was “all for symbolism” but “we are now looking for women with real terrestrial power.”

I actually really like Wonder Woman.  She’s cool.  I had a Wonder Woman lunch box in elementary school that I was very proud of.  But personally, I would have preferred Malala’s face as our heroine.  Or Wangari Muta Maathai, who was a brilliant Kenyan environmental and political activist. Among many other leadership roles, Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”[6]  She had an infectious positive attitude, inspiring each and every person to do the night right thing.  She died in 2011.

If you were to choose the next UN honorary ambassador, who would it be?  What feminists in your life do you admire?

And because Oct 11th was the International Day of the Girl, let’s mention a few young feminists.  I’m thinking of Emma Watson, otherwise known as Hermione Granger… with the He for She campaign[7], which gives men a platform to stand up and become feminists.  Or how about the five young Chinese women jailed for planning a nonviolent campaign about sexual harassment on public transportation.  Nicknamed the “Feminist Five,” the activists staged events for International Women’s Day on March 8 this past year, and were quite successful.[8]  They gathered people using the tools of social media until they were locked up, where they stayed until politicians and leaders from around the world, including Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry, advocated for their release.  After a month, the five were finally set free and have continued to fight for women’s rights.

I’m thinking of Balash Bol Deng, who isn’t necessarily a feminist through activism, she’s a feminist through example—a rare woman who has pushed through barrier after barrier for equality, all to become a veterinarian in South Sudan.[9]  For the past five years, Deng has led a team of about a dozen men to travel the countryside to help tribal people and refugees vaccinate and protect their most prized possession: livestock. She studied to get an advanced education and become a veterinarian in sub-Saharan Africa, where less than 10 percent of poor rural girls finish secondary school.  Her persistence has helped make her the kind of woman who clears a path for the next generation of young girls to succeed. Feminism personified.

I’m thinking of the 18 year old young woman I met four years ago in Haiti.  She was wearing headphones and swapping cassette tapes in the small shed of a radio station in the Papaye Region, bringing uplifting peasant worker music, news stories and health education, a positive collaborative spirit and sense of Haitian pride to one million listeners in the area.  In that region when they had money to send a student on to higher learning, they always sent the girls.  Parishioner, Ali Hon-Anderson and I helped build an eco-village there, and all the engineers in charge were woman.  Girls and women are already pioneering change across the world, in schools, in communities, in parliaments — we must recognize this role and multiply it ever more.

When I think of these examples of progress made by young women in the world, it gives me hope.  When I see our kids singing their hearts out, I want that kind of learning and joy to be possible for every child.  As Malala said, “I am just a committed and stubborn person, who wants to see every child getting quality education, who wants equal rights for women and peace in every corner of the world.”[10]  Girls’ progress is good not only for girls, but also for families, communities and society at large.  When we invest in girls’ health, safety, education and rights – in times of peace and crisis – we empower them to reach for their dreams and build better lives for themselves and their communities. There are so many ways to lead in this faithful work.  Following in Malala’s footsteps, let us all be stubborn and more dedicated.[11]

…But not only stubborn and dedicated.  Let us also learn to show our compassionate and vulnerable sides too.  None of these ways of working for equality are gendered.  To close, I’ll tell you a story about Carl Scovel, who is my spiritual director, and was the long time minister of King’s Chapel in Boston.  When I saw him on Friday he accidentally called me Honor, the name of a young woman who had once lived with his family for a while many years ago.  When I asked about her he told me about a time the two of them went to see a movie, and Carl had found the last scene about an internment camp unbearably sad.  As they walked out into the bright light of the lobby, Honor caught him wiping his eyes.  She asked if he was ok, and Carl said not to worry, it was just that a cold was coming on.  Honor paused and they walked out into the cool air.  A little while later she said, “No Mr. Scovel, you don’t have a cold, those were just tears.”  Carl ventured that he had been told as a kid that big boys don’t cry.  And Honor said maybe big boys don’t cry, but men do.

May we all be called to care, and may only love guide us on.



Closing Words

May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.

-Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama


[1] Nobel Lecture


[2] http://www.un.org/en/events/girlchild/

[3] http://www.un.org/geninfo/bp/women.html

[4] http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002324/232416E.pdf

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/wonder-woman-un-honorary-ambassador-empowerment-women-girls-gender-equality-petition-a7374856.html

[6] http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/

[7] http://www.heforshe.org/en

[8] http://www.takepart.com/photos/global-feminists

[9] https://www.one.org/us/2015/03/16/balashs-story-the-only-female-vet-in-the-upper-nile/

[10] https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2014/yousafzai-lecture_en.html

[11] Irina Bokova, ibid.