I'll start with the bad news.
The world is still a CRAZY, dangerous place for many women and girls.
The United Nations spent 4 years researching the plight of women in Asia, surveying more than 10,000 men in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea.
Yep, TEN THOUSAND men across Asia were surveyed to figure out how they treated the women in their lives. The answers were not so pretty.
- Half of the men interviewed reported using violence against a female partner.
- Nearly a quarter of the men interviewed reported raping a woman or girl.
Here in Cambodia, 1 in 5 men admitted to having raped a woman, and more than half committed their first rape before the age of 20 (about 15% did so under the age of 15).
So, we have some pretty messed up attitudes towards our womenfolk here. It's not ALL men, but a significant proportion. Enough to screw things up for a bunch of girls.
I live in an urban poor slum community in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.
This is a community where prostitution is multi-generational, and where the fathers are largely absent, in jail, or living with their "real" families.
It's no surprise then, that when I come home from work, I am swamped by kids looking for fatherly attention or a hug.
One little girl, Sreynan, watches out for my motorbike every evening. As soon as she spots me coming round the corner, she jumps up from whatever game she is playing and begs to be allowed to ride along for the final few meters up to my house.
I grab her hand, and with a deft leap, she is up on the back of the bike for an exciting 30 seconds of navigating potholes and trash.
At eight years old, she longs for a father in her life, someone to welcome home.
30 seconds is better than nothing.
One day, Sreynan tells me her birthday is coming up the following month. She's watched how much my own daughter looks forward to her special day and she wants the same. Sreynan tells me proudly that her father is going to come and take her out for her birthday to get some yummy food.
"My Daddy is coming to take me out! It's gonna be SO MUCH FUN!" she squeals with delight.
My heart sinks when I hear those words of childlike hope. I've never seen her father make an appearance once in the 3 years I've lived here. And it seems unlikely that this year would be an exception. Sheesh. Life can be real ugly sometimes.
Sure enough, the big day rolls around and no sign of the missing father. Sreynan plays quietly with the toys in our lounge, holding back the tears, ignoring the chaos of the children playing around her.
I go into the other room and rest my forehead against the wall.
Sreynan is just one of the little girls longing for positive male figures and fatherly love in my tiny community. Her story is repeated all over the world. When she grows older, she'll likely encounter young men who will use and abuse her, taking advantage of her neediness.
My heart breaks for her.
God's heart breaks.
But there is good news too. Or at least the promise of good news. Thank God.
See, I'm part of a movement of folks who are convinced that the same young men who have learnt to mistreat women from their fathers and uncles and society at large - hold the promise for change.
We're convinced that young women, who have learnt that all they deserve is abuse and neglect, can equally learn that they are worthy of respect and love.
Bend a tree when it is young - goes the ancient Khmer proverb...
In other words, youth hold the greatest possibility for change. Train and equip them for that change while they are still young, and when they are older, they will not depart from it (Prov. 22:6).
Across the Non-Western world - in every single one of those countries where those 10,000 men were surveyed - the population is disproportionately young. Sociologists call it a Youth Bulge.
See, the cool (and terrifying) thing about young people is, they are open to new ideas. They are idealistic. They are still full of hope. They are willing to change and adopt new attitudes and behaviors. They have access to technology and learning that can influence their thinking - for good and for evil.
That's why I believe young people are the hope of a nation. Hasn't God consistently used young people to accomplish his purposes throughout the biblical story?
- God used a ruddy shepherd boy named David—the youngest of all his brothers —to defeat a giant and lead his people.
- God used a boy king named Josiah, who at age fifteen began to “seek after the God of David”, to launch a national revival.
- God led a young prophet named Jeremiah through danger, prison, suffering and exile in the wilderness to bring a message to the people and to speak truth to those in power.
- God used a poor, orphaned, foreign-born teenage girl named Esther to save her people.
And then, rather than coming as a member of the wealthy and powerful elite, God chose to announce his upside-down Kingdom by being born as a vulnerable baby boy.
Hope came down among us as a child.
So, what are you and I - the global church - doing to equip young people to be the change desperately needed in their own communities?
Are we investing in this next generation for change?
Are we training up young men and women in the way that they should go?
What are we doing to ensure a good future for girls like Sreynan?
Not just on International Women's Day, but on the other 364 days of the year?
Because, if there were ever a need for people of passion and commitment, it is right now.
So, here's to strong women and girls:
May we respect them.
May we be them.
May we raise them.