From the European refugee crisis after World War II wars in Europe, to the civil rights struggle in the USA and apartheid in South Africa, YWCAs have been at the forefront of raising the status of women and young women worldwide.
The Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) was created in response to the industrial revolution, which, from the middle of the nineteenth century, started the movement of women and girls out of the home and rural areas and into factories throughout the Western world.
This was also a time of religious revival which inspired Christian women in several countries to begin meeting the needs of such women for housing, education and support by starting the first YWCAs.
The World YWCA was founded through the convergence of a social activist Lady Mary Jane Kinnaird and the committed Christian Emma Robarts. Mary Jane Kinnaird, born in 1816, was a philanthropist committed to young women’s well being. Kinnaird was concerned about the safety of young women who moved to London city, often alone, to work or serve in the Crimean war. She raised funds and in 1855 set up housing for young single women in London. Equipped with a library, Bible classes and employment bureau, the housing provided a “warm Christian atmosphere.” Kinnaird and her associates hoped to help young women cope with the pressures of work and believed it was important to care for the souls of young women along with their physical and mental health.
Emma Robarts, born around 1818, was also committed to young women. She set up a prayer circle in her hometown on the outskirts of London. In 1855, she brought together 23 women to hold intercession prayer for young women—they called themselves the Young Women’s Christian Association. The group went beyond prayer and reached out to the young women they prayed for and involved them in activities to build the mind, body and spirit.
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 pace and success of the World YWCA movement spoke of a considerable need for the services provided by the association, primarily access to educational and religious classes, hostels for young women, and opportunities for both service and recreation.
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.
Today, the YWCA movement empowers women and girls to change lives and change communities in over 120 countries.