Healing Broken Systems this International Women’s Day

by Suzanne Broetje, Director of Communications and Philanthropy, Broetje Family Trust

Girls at a vocational training program run by Stephen’s Children in Cairo, Egypt, in 2004.  Operating in the garbage dump, this space provides safety, connection and an employable skill.  Photo taken by Suzanne Broetje

This International Women’s Day is more important than ever. As we pause to recognize the important women in our lives, we must also recommit ourselves to undoing unjust systems that harm and exclude women and girls in every country of the world. For me, this work is not only about right use of power and access to equal rights, it is also about healing our gendered identities that keep us divided. In her book, Wild Mercy, Mirabai Starr states that there is a great need to be mothering the world together right now. To embrace the feminine is to build connection, to empower one another, to ask good questions, to listen and then to respond. 

Back in 2004, I found myself standing in the middle of a city garbage dump in Cairo. The smell was so overpowering, I resisted even breathing. My eyes filled with tears as I was introduced to a small girl and her family in a corner of the garbage they called home. Like thousands of others around them, they sorted garbage for a living. This place was devoid of running water and sanitation. There was little privacy and protection, and girls were routinely abused and raped by neighbors and family. An oppressive environment of competition and exploitation prevailed. Our host, Miriam, had grown up in this place and was now serving as a home visitor for a local ministry. As she stood in front of the young girl and looked deeply into her eyes, she took in her whole being — her safety, her health, her spirit.  Then she held her and prayed over her. As I stood in witness, I saw a light emanating from this deeply human, spiritual connection. Face to face, body to body. The feminine spirit of Love and motherly nurture formed a protective wall around us. The sounds and smells of the dump receded; the space filled with a deep sense of security and wellbeing; and the dignity of this small girl was affirmed. 

I reflected back to the time when I was as small as this young girl. I had been taken, held for ransom, sexually assaulted, and later discarded on the side of the road. Prevailing systems of the time failed me.  There was no one to see me, to look deeply into my being and embrace my broken spirit. Standing alone, I locked my pain away deep inside and told no one; I pulled myself together and just kept going. Standing there with Miriam, I could see another way and understood why I was there in that moment. I could choose to let my life speak, to listen and respond, so that others may also be heard. 

Here at the Broetje Family Trust, we are committed to healing broken systems and relationships. We evoke the feminine spirit of community building and hospitality to look more deeply into the lives of those around us. Well over half of the leadership and staff of our Trust are women, and everyone involved in the Trust’s work nurtures love and connection every day:  

  • Teachers at Nueva Esperanza Leadership Academy lead with vulnerability and empathy in the classrooms as they build deeper community with our young students; 
  • Staff at Tierra Vida community are present for youth and families every day, accompanying them to grow a greater sense of belonging and mutual care in community;
  • The team at Collegium Café welcomes each customer with a smile and positive message, endeavoring to see each person as a story waiting to be told;
  • Our grants team invests in communities around the world who are evoking the feminine spirit of interdependence and collaboration to bring healing and change.

Most importantly, we’re learning from and alongside women and girls. Like Sumona of the Thiyasha Girl Power Group in West Bengal. At the young age of 18, she understands that early marriage is one of the ways to groom, lure and traffic girls in her community. She leads this group of “anti-trafficking warriors” as they collaborate with other allies in their village, to create a “safe boundary” around girls, and to ensure they are accompanied, protected and informed.  

Thiyasha Girl Power Group in West Bengal, India, in 2020 with their leader, Sumona, standing in the center. Photo provided by World Vision

And Angela of Watye Ki Gen in Gulu, Uganda. As a young school girl, she and her classmates were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. After a harrowing escape many years later, she committed herself to serving women and their children born in captivity — children in need of reconciliation with their communities so that they may find a safe place of healing and belonging.  As a first step, the women on her board had some profound healing of their own to do, forgiving atrocities they had done to each other as captives, and modeling reconciliation in their communities.

Cheryl Broetje, left, and Suzanne Broetje, right, flanking Janet, Angela and another colleague in 2015 at the Watye Ki Gen office in Gulu, Uganda. Photo provided by Suzanne Broetje

On this day, I am grateful for women like Miriam, Sumona and Angela who stand strongly rooted in their communities, draw on their profound experiences, and let their lives speak boldly so that others may find safety and healing. They embody the feminine spirit of connection as they prepare the next generation of women and girls to lead a more holistic world. They bring healing to us all as they work collaboratively to break down the gendered walls that only serve to divide and silence us.  

I leave you with some lines from the poem “Choose to Challenge” by Anisa Nandaula on the International Women’s Day website (and encourage you to watch the video as well): 

This is your chance to add your own chapter
To call out racism and sexism…
To stand, where the rest of the world has chosen to sit
To call it out at home, at school, at work, bit by bit
To scream, where the world has chosen to whisper
Not just for your daughter your mother or your sister
Let us choose to challenge.

We all have a part to play in nurturing a more holistic identity that is affirming for every human being. What will you do?

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