Photo by Nguyen Linh on Unsplash

Congregations can use finance as a tool for social change

Phyllis Anderson

August 30, 2018

Rehema* is a single mother in Kenya with five young children. She trades fish for a living to support her family. Every morning, she goes to the shores of Lake Victoria, where she endures routine abuse by the local fishermen just to be able to buy fish to sell at the local market. They control the region’s fish supply and demand sexual acts in exchange for the day’s catch. If Rehema refuses, she could be barred from trading altogether and stripped of her family’s only source of livelihood.

What happens to Rehema every day is called “sex-for-fish,” or jaboya. It is an all-too-common practice that has led to widespread abuse and exploitation as well as staggering rates of HIV/AIDs. It is just one example of how gender-based violence is baked into supply chains around the world, driving our markets and our economies.

Worldwide, one in three women has experienced rape or physical abuse. The global cost of violence against women is estimated at $1.5 trillion or 2 percent of global GDP—more than the cost of homicides or civil war.

But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The numbers don’t account for violence against transgender people or the millions of men and boys who experience sexual and physical violence daily. Right now, someone somewhere is experiencing violence based on gender, and that violence is rooted in structural inequities and power imbalances among men, women and gender minorities, intensified by differences in class, age, race, ability and other factors.

The problem is pervasive. But it is not inevitable. 

Resistance is growing. In the United States, the #MeToo movement is raising awareness and calling high-profile offenders to account. Laws are changing in parts of the world. People of faith have a special calling to work for justice and lift up society’s disadvantaged. Churches do so when they support victims of gender-based violence, pray for an end to such violence, advocate for policies that address it, provide educational programs that inform and empower people to resist, and act to rid their own congregations of every form of abuse.

Is there more we can do? Yes. What if our churches joined forces with others to bring the power of the global economy to bear on the problem? We know that gender-based violence is evil. What most people don’t realize is that it also poses unacceptable bottom-line risks to businesses and investors. What if we harnessed the power of finance for good? Imagine the possibilities!

A campaign underway right now shows how it can be done. The Haddam, Conn.-based Criterion Institute is the leading think tank focused on using finance as a tool for social change. Criterion partners with churches and others to demystify finance and to empower people to become actors in shifting systems of finance. Earlier this year, Criterion launched a long-term commitment to leverage the power of finance to address gender-based violence. The goal is to shift the power dynamics that dictate how finance operates so that Rehema and the millions of others affected by gender-based violence are not preyed upon by the system to make a living but can, instead, influence the system to work better for themselves and their children.

Consider what could happen if investors in Kenya’s fishing industry heard Rehema’s story and saw women’s exploitation at the hands of fishermen as a supply-chain risk. What if they then decided to move their investments to stable collectives led by women who band together to buy boats and fishing equipment, bypassing the abusive men that currently control the system?

It is possible.

“Our financial systems wield incredible power,” says Joy Anderson, Criterion Institute’s founder and president. “To leverage that power for social good, it’s imperative that we expand who sees themselves as having a voice and equip them with the tools they need to shape the system.”

Congregations large and small can use finance to break cycles of gender-based violence and promote just economic practices right in their own communities.

Congregations large and small can use finance to break cycles of gender-based violence and promote just economic practices right in their own communities. As a place to start, Criterion Institute provides 1KChurches, a five-session Bible study that allows congregations to imagine God’s economy and to use their economic power for good. The study leads to action as the group makes a small loan to a small local business that furthers a cause about which they care. That cause could be anything from gender-based violence and food security to immigration and living wages. Three hundred congregations of various denominations across the country are participating already.

*Name fictionalized

Phyllis Anderson is a senior advisor at the Criterion Institute. She is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and recently retired as president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif. Joy Anderson, president and founder of the Criterion Institute, will present the workshop “Discover God’s Economy: Using Finance as a Strategy for Social Change” at ABHMS’ “Space for Grace: Thy Will Be Done,” November 14-16, 2018, in Philadelphia. REGISTER TODAY for this national conference that seeks to explore critical issues of mission engagement, discipleship and church transformation facing Christians today.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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