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PC(USA) delegates to U.N. event plan for action at home

Commission on the Status of Women inspires discussions of ‘global perspective’

by Sue Washburn | Presbyterian News Service

Kathryn Urban (left) of Washington DC joins Kristen Campbell, Pam Snyder and Betty Jones at the Commission on the Status of Women. (Photo by Sue Washburn)

NEW YORK — While many 21-year olds are escaping the pressure of college courses on a beach during spring break, Kathryn Urban decided to head for the United Nations and the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) as part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) delegation. During the day she is learning about the challenges women face around the world and she’s spending her nights in a hostel several blocks away.

Urban, a junior at George Washington University studying International Affairs and Security Policy, is no stranger to world politics. She spent part of semester in Rwanda researching Chinese investment there. While researching, she would experience intimidation tactics like being followed or getting middle of the night phone calls from unknown callers who knew her name. But Urban’s passion for politics and policy remains undeterred as she imagines how big ideas can be translated to the local level.

Despite her age, Urban is typical of many of the national and international CSW participants. They are passionate, accomplished, eager to learn more and plan take what they learn home to change their worlds.

Urban is looking forward to using her experiences at CSW to inform the work she does with youth at the Western Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. She’s planning to create an all-ages Sunday school curriculum based on the women of the Bible — a curriculum that will be influenced by the stories that she’s heard from other women. She also hopes to create a retreat for young adults on women’s issues.

“The kids in the DC area already have a global perspective since most of their parents work for the Department of State or work on the Hill,” Urban said. “But the first-person international stories here are more powerful because they aren’t filtered through the lens of U.S. policy.”

PC(USA) delegates from Alaska to Florida attended the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. (Photo by Sue Washburn)

Urban believes gender equality is an important topic for young boys as well as young girls.

“Many of the children I work with are convinced that they will be the generation that will achieve true equality for women,” she said. “But they need know that even if they can make that happen in the United States, there will likely still be the problem of gender inequality in other parts of the world.”

Topics like climate change and farming, access to resources, sexual and reproductive rights and, access to education, media and government all have an impact on the amount of power women have over their own lives.

Urban was particularly moved by the story she heard North Korean woman share. The women was forced to marry young. Caught in an abusive marriage and with a child who needed expensive health care, she went to work in China so that she could send money home. There, she again suffered abuse at the hands of a man, this time one who trafficked her as slave labor. She escaped him and headed back to North Korea only to be caught by border guards who took all her money and assaulted her before allowing her to enter the country.

When she finally made her way back to her hometown, she discovered that her husband and son had left and she was unable to find them. She fled again and ended up going to China and Thailand before finally making her way to the United States and starting a new life.

While the stories of women facing inequality and abuse are unsettling, one of the emerging themes of the CSW is the resilience of women not just to survive their situations but also to find the strength to advocate for change.

Sharon Gibbons of Alaska leads an ecumenical group in song as she helps lead worship in the chapel in the Church Center for the United Nations during the Commission on the Status of Women. (Photo by Sue Washburn)

“The ‘aha’ moments here are heart-wrenching,” said Presbyterian delegate Sharon Gibbons of Visited Eagle River Presbyterian Church in Alaska. “But I’m finding hope because I am an example of that hope.”

Gibbons, too, was a victim of domestic abuse and is currently advocating for abuse victims while also caring for her daughter who is suffering from dermatomyositis, a rare inflammatory disease that causes rashes and weakens muscles.

Gibbons says attending the CSW in 2015 changed her life by changing how she saw herself. She realized she was not alone in what she was experiencing.

“The first time I came to CSW, I was quiet and introverted,” she said. “It was hard for me to have conversations because I was still processing my own experiences with domestic violence. But being here started to change me. It’s like it changed my DNA. Today I live and breathe the desire to change the world for the better.”

After the CSW in 2015, Gibbons returned to her home an Anchorage. Inspired, she decided to run for political office, challenging the incumbent in the city assembly.

“From most points of view I lost because I didn’t win the seat,” she said. “ But I got 42% of the vote; and I consider it a win because the experience catapulted me into community work to bring about change. Being at the UN is a reminder that it’s the hierarchy of men that keeps women down. Women’s rights are human rights and we need to advocate for that.”

Gibbons credits God for the transformation she has undergone.

“When I was at my lowest, God brought me up. God put a fire in my belly to make a change and help other women,” she said. “In the past I wouldn’t have been able to share my story, to talk about domestic violence. But I can’t give God the glory if I don’t share my whole truth. I’ve learned to trust that that difficult part of my life does not define who I am or limit what God has for me to do.”

Gibbons plans to continue advocating for changes in legislation to benefit other victims of domestic abuse. She, Urban and seventeen other women from around the PC(USA) spent the week at the CSW as part of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

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