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World women’s group continues to fight against addiction, abuse

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — The World Women’s Christian Temperance Union, still fighting against the effects of alcohol abuse and other addictions, held its 40th Triennial Convention in Ottawa Aug. 18-24.

The union began in the 19th century in the United States when there was no public safety net to help families left destitute or women physically abused as a result of alcohol addiction.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was among the various social gospel movements of the 19th century, such as the abolition of slavery, and it not only played a big role in Prohibition in the United States, but also in obtaining alcohol bans or restrictions in most Canadian provinces outside Quebec.

The non-sectarian Christian movement also played a major role in women’s obtaining the right to vote.

Worldwide, the focus has expanded to include fighting drug addiction, human trafficking and other social ills.

“Here in Canada and around the world, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union has been a forerunner for how to work locally for moral reform in individual lives while advocating for social reform at various levels of government,” said the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s representative Rick Hiemstra to the gathering of about 200 women from as far away as New Zealand, Korea, Norway and Zimbabwe.

“Your work, your goals have never been more relevant,” Hiemstra said. “Addictions still cripple many lives and governments are moving to normalize and legalize marijuana in Canada.”

“Women are still trapped in prostitution and enslaved by human trafficking,” he said. “Newly pervasive addictions like Internet pornography creates a climate for all kinds of exploitation while breaking up families and crippling people’s abilities to form them.”

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union traces its origins to Fredonia, New York, in 1873 when women marched, sang hymns and recited Scripture in front of places that sold liquor to get them shut down. This first march launched the Women’s Crusades that soon reached more than 900 communities in 31 states and territories. The National Women’s Christian Temperance Union formed in the U.S. in 1874, followed soon by the formation of a Canadian union, and then one in the United Kingdom.

Francis Willard, the second national president of the U.S. union, led the establishment of the World Women’s Christian Temperance Union that held its first worldwide convention in 1891.

World President Margaret Ostenstad of Norway spoke of Willard’s awareness of the terrible plight of families grappling with addiction, domestic abuse, gambling and prostitution. She also fought against the unsafe working and living conditions immigrants faced in big cities like Chicago that created unsanitary conditions and disease.

The World Women’s Christian Temperance Union was set up to fight the “poverty, violence and hopelessness they saw in the nation’s cities,” Ostenstad said. The union took on the task of “educating people on the dangers of alcohol plus outreach to the poor.”

Ostenstad pointed to the union’s role in Norway’s 100 years of offering treatment centres.

The Norwegian union is also sponsoring the digging of wells in Africa after discovering mothers were feeding their babies alcohol because the water was unsafe to drink, she said.

Ostenstad cited figures by the WHO’s Dr. Vladimir Posnyak on the linkages between the harmful use of alcohol, infectious diseases and gender-based violence. Yet at the same time, figures show 48 per cent of the world adult population has never consumed alcohol, she said, while 62 per cent have not had any in the last 12 months.

Twenty per cent of all interpersonal violence is attributed to alcohol use, she said. It’s also been linked to breast cancer and tuberculosis. Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of death and is No. 5 globally as the cause of disability, she said. Alcohol use also has on young people because of its effects on immature brains. “How many immature users never reach their full potential because of alcohol use?” she asked.

Ostenstad also said the production of illegal drugs also leads to the growth of criminal drug organizations and corruption of government officials, undermining the legitimate economy.

“As long as one baby is affect by a mother’s drinking, we will continue to fight,” she said. “As long as one family is destroyed by alcohol . . . destroyed by domestic violence . . . or one person dies of a drug overdose, we will continue to fight.”

The convention offered translation services in English, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian and Spanish. National presidents from 28 countries were present, including from Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, Argentina, South Africa, Germany, and the Philippines. At the convention’s opening Aug. 18, delegates processed into the meeting hall with the many flags of the countries represented. The women also wore their national costumes.

Members pledge to abstain from alcohol in all forms. The union’s aims concern addiction prevention, promoting sobriety, education about the social and physical effects of addiction, the protection of the family, the promotion of good citizenship and just laws.

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