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Faith advocates press Congress
to help world's poorest children

Action climaxes Ecumenical Advocacy Days

Washington, D.C., March 13, 2007 Christian and human rights advocates pressed members of Congress Monday for greater U.S. support on issues considered vital to the world's poorest children.

Following an international conference this weekend focusing on the status of children, the activists urged Congressional action to ensure affordable, accessible, quality healthcare for all children in the U.S.; comprehensive, mandatory and aggressive anti-global warming legislation to protect future generations; and adoption by Congress new "Spending for Peace, Not War" priorities.

The day on Capitol Hill was the climax of the international Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD) conference held in suburban Washington this past weekend. The National Council of Churches USA was among more than 50 church and justice organizations sponsoring the fifth annual event.

EAD presenters and the Congressional advocacy group reported that the world is making some headway in meeting guidelines for the rights of children--but falling behind in key areas such as human trafficking and HIV/AIDS.

"It is sinful that over nine million children in America, the richest nation in the world, are without health insurance," said Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund. "In 2007 people of faith must play a prophetic role of calling upon our nation and leaders to take the next logical, achievable and moral step to guarantee comprehensive health and mental health coverage for all children and pregnant women in America," she told some 1,000 conference attendees Sunday.

Children a priority

During the conference, titled "And How Are the Children," U.S. presenters and participants tackled issues ranging from globalization, environmental degradation and privatization of water resources in developing countries, to child soldiers in Africa and the effect on children of daily killings in places like the Philippines, Burma and Iraq.

One threat to the world's children is toxic waste. A new United Church of Christ (UCC) report, "Toxic Waste at 20," was released at EAD. It offered new findings 20 years after UCC's original landmark report, "Toxic Waste and Race," was published.

Rachel Sparks, a coordinator for the national abolitionist "Not for Sale Campaign," called for an to end human trafficking in the United States and abroad. "We need to recognize that something is going on here," she said. There are some 200,000 men, women and children currently victimized in the U.S., with more than 27 million affected by trafficking worldwide.

Sparks called on policymakers to "address not just the supply side but the demand side," referencing prostitution trafficking in Asia and the U.S.

EAD presenters shared examples that call for change in U.S. trade agreements and the president's fast track trade authority. Global security workshops addressed concerns including nuclear arms buildup and use of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster bombs.

Argentinean Germán Bournissen, National Team of Indigenous Pastoral, Argentina, and Tara Carr-Lemke of the SHARE Foundation detailed how deforestation and contamination of lands from mining and exploitation are harming indigenous communities in Latin America.

Killing Africa softly

Francis Ng'ambi, an economist from Malawi, and Zambia's Emily Joy Sikazwe, executive director, Women for Change, addressed Africa's crushing debt, the problems with World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment austerity requirements, and the detriments of free trade rather than fair trade.

"Our idea was to look at what U.S. policy is trying to achieve, what African needs actually are, and where the divide is," Ng'ambi said.

Ng'ambi, project officer on Budget, Debt and Trade with the Economic Justice Network of the Fellowship of the Christian Councils in Southern Africa, said, "There are claims made out there that there is a lot of debt cancellation, but Africa still pays a lot of money on debts and has a long way to go. Over the last ten years there is a growing struggle at the base, not a growing prosperity."

The U.S. and Europe's continuing subsidy of products is having a terrible effect on African farmers, said Ng'ambi. "It's killing them softly," he said, but when Africa wants to subsidize it's prohibited.

Praising the importance of women in Africa, Zambia's Sikazwe told of a girl child with younger siblings aged ten, six and four, whose parents had died and who became a prostitute. Sikazwe said when she talked to the girl about the dangers of prostitution, the girl said, "AIDS is not a lion I can see, but my brothers are hungry, so I have to work."

On the tragedy of child soldiers, the Rev. Rocco Puopolo, executive director, Africa Faith and Justice Network, drew from his experience with child soldiers during Sierra Leone's brutal conflict. Puopolo said there were child soldiers who had been kidnapped but others who would go voluntarily--a choice Puopolo laid at the footsteps of poverty.

"Sometimes conditions are very bad for kids and they see no hope in their lives," he said. "They're told if they join they’ll get money, but that doesn't happen. It's a reflection of the absolute poverty in which they're living." Possible legislative initiatives to make child soldiers illegal would be one deterrent to the problem, said Puopolo and his co-presenters.

Water for all

On the future of available and affordable world water resources for current and future generations, United Church of Christ Minister for Environmental Justice, Dr. Carlos J. Correa, warned that large corporations' privatization of water resources in many countries-including the U.S.-will mean less access to affordable water for the poor.

Correa included the bottled water business in that warning, saying that in the global south, in countries such as India, large multinationals are appropriating, bottling and selling public water that would otherwise be available to the poor as drinking water.

Presenting with Correa, Kenyan water resources consultant Paul Maina said community-owned and managed water resources were the empowered alternative to water privatization. Chief executive officer for the Centre for Development Services (CDS), Maina said community-managed water programs go beyond the borehole: they should be sustainable, and "should have communities be directly involved in the design, process, building and ongoing monitoring of water projects."

Maina said the key issue is "to determine affordability so communities can manage and afford to maintain and make changes on their own, beyond the development partners. The communities are willing to shoulder that."

He warned that water management should be a holistic process, taking environment and development impacts into account.

Murder in the Philippines

A delegation of high ranking Christian leaders and civil society advocates from the Philippines told EAD attendees of the island nation's escalating extra-judicial killings, environmental degradations and labor exploitation by foreign corporations including retail giant Wal-Mart.

The delegation releases Wednesday a report on human rights in the Philippines to the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, chaired by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and to members of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, chaired by Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA). The Filipino delegation was in the U.S. for a related International Ecumenical Conference on Human Rights in the Philippines.

NCC's Edgar honored

At the conference Sunday night closing ceremony, NCC's general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar, issued a charge for the Monday Capitol Hill day.

"We don't have to take a vote as to whether God cares about children. Do unto elected officials as if you were elected officials," said Edgar. "Talk from your heart about peace and poverty and healthcare and children...about the children of Baghdad and Darfur and Afghan and New Orleans."

Edgar, who leaves his NCC post in December after eight years, was honored by the ecumenical symposium's announcement of the endowed Rev. Bob Edgar Scholarship Fund, to be awarded to one young person each year for attendance at EAD.

Past successes

The Rev. John L. McCullough, executive director of the humanitarian agency Church World Service, paid tribute at EAD's Friday night opening to the impacts made by the Christian ecumenical community and past EAD conferences in stimulating U.S. policy changes for the poor.

He included previous conference pushes that contributed to defeat of the administration's nuclear weapon bunker buster plan; the passing of legislation to raise the U.S. minimum wage; agreement by the U.S to increase its contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria; and in seeing that the principle of 100 percent debt cancellation for poor countries was accepted and implemented by multilateral financial institutions including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

McCullough said the ecumenical community still has a large agenda of unfinished business to bring to the U.S., saying the faith bodies' successes give strong basis for future ones.

What seemed a fitting close, a member of the EAD planning team, Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, national coordinator for Public and Social Advocacy, American Baptist Churches USA, and musician colleagues from University Baptist Church in College Park, Maryland, performed songs of faith and justice.

The only event of its kind held in the U.S. that gathers national and international faith and grassroots activists, EAD is representative of the broader movement of people of faith who believe that poverty is a pressing moral issue that must be addressed as a top priority on the U.S. agenda.


For more information about the EAD conference, visit: www.advocacydays.org

EDITORS NOTE: High res photos with cut lines available on request.

CONTACTS:

Jan Dragin, Church World Service, 781.925.1526, jdragin@gis.net.
Michael Neuroth, Ecumenical Advocacy Days, 202.230.2276, michael_neuroth@hotmail.com.
Dan Webster, NCC, 212.870.2252, NCCnews@ncccusa.org.


 

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