Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA)
What is YWCA?
The YWCA, or World Young Women's Christian Association, is a movement of women working for social and economic change around the world. It advocates for young women’s leadership, peace, justice, human rights and sustainable development, both on a grassroots and global scale. It is the largest women’s organization in the world, and the second oldest organization of its kind, second only to the Relief Society. The organization is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland.
The original Christian focus is still strong in many of the national associations, but some have changed their focus to social programs and services and mission-based topics. The YWCA is independent of the YMCA, though many local YMCA and YWCA associations have amalgamated into YM/YWCAs or YMCA-YWCAs, and belong to both organizations while providing the programs of each.
The movement that resulted in the World YWCA began in England in 1855 in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and the Crimean War. Founded through the convergence of social activist Lady Mary Jane Kinnaird’s General Female Training Institute, and committed Christian Emma Robarts’ Prayer Union, it sought to be a social and spiritual support system for young English women.
Due to the nature of Kinnaird’s interest in work abroad and the expansiveness of the British Empire, the initiative spread rapidly to western and northern Europe, India, and the United States.
The first world conference of the YWCA was held in 1898 in London, with 326 participants from seventeen countries from around the world. It was a pivotal point in the founding of the World YWCA, cementing the principles of unity based on service and faith on a global scale.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, a profound shift began to occur within the YWCA. While industrialization had been a founding concern of the association, it had sought primarily to insulate women morally and socially from urban life. During the 1910 World YWCA conference in Berlin, however, the voices of thousands of working women from the United States were heard, and these objectives began to change. A resolution was passed requiring the association to study social and industrial problems, and to educate working women about the ‘social measures and legislation enacted in their behalf.’ Thus the social conscience of the YWCA was born into the form that it maintains today.
Until 1930 the headquarters of the World YWCA were in London. The executive committee was entirely British, with an American General Secretary. This policy resulted in a resolutely Anglo-Saxon lens through which the association viewed the world. In 1930, however, the World YWCA headquarters were moved to Geneva, Switzerland, the same city as the newly-formed League of Nations. This was both symbolic of the drive to become a more diverse association, and to enable itself to fully participate with other organizations in Geneva (such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the YMCA.)
World War II
The Second World War both strengthened the YWCAs of the world, and left its mark. Many of its members found it necessary to choose between their conscience and the safety of themselves and their families. In several countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, YWCAs were suppressed and disbanded. Throughout occupied Europe, however, women worked relentlessly to construct support systems for their neighbours and refugees, often with exceedingly limited resources.
Shortly after the end of the war, the YWCA worked to fortify the bonds of women throughout the world by holding the first World Council meeting in nearly a decade in Hangzhou in 1947. This was significant in being the first World Council held outside of the West, and further voiced the desire to be an inclusive, worldwide movement. It also served to bring together women who lived in countries that had been enemies during the war, and to raise awareness among the western YWCAs that the ruin of war was not limited to Europe.
During the following decades, the World YWCA spent much time researching and working with the issues of refugees, health, HIV and AIDS, literacy, the human rights of women and girls, the advancement of women and the eradication of poverty; mutual service, sustainable development and the environment; education and youth, peace and disarmament, and young women’s leadership. These issues continue to play an integral role in the World YWCA movement.
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