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Sister Eubank speaks at global religious forum about protecting, empowering women

Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency and director of LDS Charities, participated in the recent G20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

She was joined at the forum by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who presented talks on religious freedom and the Church’s efforts to help those in need.

On Sept. 27, Sister Eubank addressed the topic of how religious communities make positive contributions to protecting and empowering women and discussed the leadership opportunities women are given in local Church congregations.

On Friday, Sept. 28, she participated in a panel discussion on advancing the work of religiously affiliated humanitarian organizations.

Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency
Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Here are her remarks, in question-and-answer form, from her Sept. 27 presentation:

QUESTION 1: Based on your extensive experience, how can religious communities make a positive contribution to protecting and empowering vulnerable women? In particular with regards to girls’ education and ending harmful traditional practices?

Sister Eubank: I am part of the general leadership of the Relief Society in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has 176 years of experience answering this question. The Relief Society mandate is to:

  • Build faith — not just of its own members but the faith of all believing people.
  • Strengthen families — especially in their freedom to choose, vigorously address abuse and protection, and to promote education, health, and the equal place of men and women.
  • Provide relief — relief from poverty and dangerous practices, protecting displaced people, safeguarding basic human rights, defending dignity.

In the Relief Society, each woman in every congregation has a peer mentor to connect with monthly or whenever she needs help.

The Relief Society has 33,000 presidencies around the world made up of three women each who provide leadership and participate in the governing council of each congregation. This lay assignment may be the first time a woman has had a voice in her community and an expectation to lead out. Or she may be very experienced and influential. Relief Society members do lead out with surprising and interesting results. Let me describe what some women are doing to protect and empower others.

  • Nora, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: We tend to think of education as a formal university degree, but getting nontraditional students successfully into vocational and business practices — specifically women — can be transformative for their families. Nora lives with her granddaughter outside Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. With no funding or capital she enrolled in a 12-week, no-cost course called “Start and Grow My Business” sponsored by her local congregation. One of the activities was “upselling” in the market, and Nora earned $5 USD by participating. “From there it all began.” She bought candles to sell from a small table in front of her house; with advice from the course, she moved her display to the street with more traffic; she invested some profit into a wooden display counter for $3; she started selling enough candles to feed herself and her grandchild and her two children who were incarcerated in the local jail. Her peer mentors from Relief Society encouraged and helped her. Her next project was to buy a glass display case and pharmaceuticals to treat the most common illnesses in her neighborhood. She continued to support her inmate children and ensured her granddaughter was attending school instead of selling with her on the street. She knew education was important but never saw the economic reality to get her granddaughter in school. Now, Nora knows her granddaughter will not have to sell on the street because she is getting her education now. Addressing the situation of mothers and grandmothers greatly improves the education of children.
  • Sister Villanueva, Quezon City, Philippines: Working abroad and sending back remittances is driven by economics and lack of opportunity, but the reality is workers are often exploited, and, even in ideal situations, it can shred marriage and family relationships over time. Women globally bear threats of trafficking, widespread abusive conditions, and face supporting their extended family for decades at one end or abandonment by the spouse who went abroad but does not return at the other end. Instead, religious leaders in the Philippines said no. They began searching for ways families could stay together without going abroad. Instead they began funding sources for formal education called the Perpetual Education Fund that Elder Christofferson mentioned yesterday. Mrs. Villanueva is an example. They had a 1-year-old baby when her husband, Raul, lost his job. Raul decided he had no choice but to go abroad “just for a little while.” “You are not going abroad,” she told him. He was taken aback at her surety, but she had been schooled in Relief Society about the dangers and alternatives. She took work as an aide; he swallowed his pride and stayed home with the 1-year-old child; they located assistance to fund additional schooling. They struggled for a time, but a decade later they have both received higher education, raised a happy family, strengthened their marriage, and stayed together. “That one decision not to go abroad changed the whole course of our life together.” Say no to going abroad to work.
Read Elder Christofferson's address from the G20 Interfaith Forum on eliminating poverty here.
  • Benin, Burundi, and DR Congo families: I want to highlight this very fine program called Model House administered by Catholic Relief Services that works to change harmful power dynamics in couples related to decision-making and access to money. Male and female facilitators train couples directly in communication skills, how to solve conflict without violence, and how to jointly handle money. The approach has been remarkably effective at reducing rates of intimate partner violence.

So these are three examples of things women in religious communities are doing to promote education and end harmful cultural practices.

QUESTION 2: In the context of existing global development frameworks and international legal mechanisms promoting women’s rights, how can religious communities cooperating with governments increase and improve women’s participation in economic, social, and political systems?

Sister Eubank: A single thing would change the landscape drastically. It would be to do more to prevent violence against women. It is the threat of violence from families, from extreme religious elements, and the inability of governments and local congregations to address the violence that keeps women from participating.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said: “Violence has nothing to do with religion as such. It has to do with identity and life in groups. Religion sustains groups more effectively than any other force. It suppresses violence within. It rises to the threat of violence from without. Most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion whatsoever. They are about power, territory and glory, things that are secular, even profane. But if religion can be enlisted, it will be” (Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence).

ISIS, Boko Haram, gangs in Central America, and South Sudanese militias know that targeting women destroys the next generation, and that is their true quest. Women are brutalized in the name of faith, in the name of tribe, in the name of geography, but none of that is true. They are being brutalized for power and control.

When governments and religious communities fail to combat the violence and fall short in bringing all their power and might to address it, it destroys the hope and confidence of all women to participate. Which is the very point of these enemies.

I think this is why Malala Yousafzai has become so iconic. You recall she is the Pakistani Muslim girl who fought for women's rights against the Taliban and survived an attempted assassination. In 2014 she became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize because she could not be silenced and stopped from participating. When a courageous woman emerges to participate at any level, from the barrio to the boardroom, we must do all we can both personally and institutionally to defend her basic rights and help her cause.

Lord Sacks additionally said that “what (Malala) and millions like (her) represent is the ability to let faith strengthen, not damage our shared humanity. It sounds simple, but history tells us it is not” (Not in God's Name).

Sister Sharon Eubank of the Relief Society general presidency meets with a woman during BYU Women's Conference on May 3.
Sister Sharon Eubank of the Relief Society general presidency meets with a woman during BYU Women's Conference on May 3. Photo: BYU photo

QUESTION 3: Can you identify three main challenges to women’s full engagement in furthering the Agenda 2030 focusing on SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), and SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions)? What are the possible ways forward to overcome these challenges?

Sister Eubank: The challenge I choose to highlight is the assumption in policy circles that religion has nothing helpful to say about women because it is traditional, patriarchal, and the source of conflict. That is not only untrue, but it ignores the importance of religious faith to women themselves, 80 percent of whom identify with a religion and look to it for guidance. At the same time, religions can be actually held up in patriarchal constructs and practices.

Part of the look forward is in recognizing the importance of mobilizing women of faith to work on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) issues and to acknowledge their faith not as a barrier but the key to progress and success. The 2030 agenda won’t happen without religion, and religion won’t happen without women. They are the movers.

The work would not be nearly where it is today without three women, and I want to pay tribute to them: Dr. Katherine Marshall, executive director of World Faiths’ Development Dialogue (and I recommend her book "Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding"); Dr. Azza Karam, who chairs the UN Interagency taskforce on Religion and Development; and Jean Duff, a founder of the Partnership for Faith and Development. These fearless women have worked tirelessly for decades to ensure the faith voices of women are included at every level of development and that faiths open themselves to healthy and transformative practices that benefit women and their families.

The SDG goals on gender equality, peace, and justice are tackling how to change culture and behavior. Faith has a power greater than almost anything else to motivate people to act, to change minds, to alter behavior.

One example is the success in Uganda with HIV/AIDS prevention. Uganda was part of the early epicenter of HIV/AIDS. Many governments in the region tackled it, but Ugandan religious leaders united with government to mitigate the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV/AIDS. The group found a slogan all could support: ABC: Abstain, Be Faithful, use Condoms. Nearly all major religious institutions—Christian and Islamic — actively engaged. HIV/AIDS moved from curse/sin to a problem without borders.

Someone once asked me: “What is it like to serve in a humanitarian arena when religion is a factor?” Truthfully, religion is always a factor. Atheism and secularism are just as much a system of belief as any religion.

The way forward is to do just what this forum has as its goal. Invite and respect as many faith actors as possible, build understanding among them, and integrate them into every aspect of the 2030 SDG agenda. It will lead to the greatest success possible for equity, justice, and peace.

I close with the words of Nephi, one of the great prophets in the Book of Mormon, which is scripture sacred to my faith tradition and witnesses of Jesus Christ. He says, “For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and … all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33).

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