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women in India at self-help class

5 Practical Ways Faith Actors Can Advance Gender Justice

By Dr Marianna Leite, Global Lead – Gender and Inequality at Christian Aid.

Generally speaking, women’s situation has improved in most societies over the last few decades with some key successes along the way including several reforms to laws and regulations in many countries. But there is still a lot to be done.

According to UN Women, in 18 countries, husbands can still legally prevent their wives from working; in 39 countries, daughters and sons do not have equal inheritance rights; and 49 countries lack laws protecting women from domestic violence. There are currently 603 million women living in countries where domestic violence is not outlawed and more than 2.6 billion in countries where rape within marriage is not considered a crime.

Understanding the real scale of gender-based violence is difficult though, particularly in times of conflict and displacement. In many crisis settings, gender-based violence is estimated to affect over 70% of women, according to the Global Protection Cluster.    

Following this year’s International Women’s Day, Christian Aid is launching a new report - Equality at All Levels: Strengthening the role of faith-based actors in promoting the Beijing +25 agenda – which calls for all faith actors and secular feminists to join forces in the fight for gender equality globally.

Religion plays a key role in the lives of many people worldwide - with 84% of the world's population associating with a faith - so faith leaders are an important and often influential factor in the lives of their followers. They are trusted and respected members of a community and can be agents of change. When people experience an injustice, such as gender-based violence, it is often the religious leaders who are the ‘first responders’. 

In addition, many faith leaders have the skills and the platform to speak out and deliver key messages to their congregations. In many countries, faith-based organisations are delivering essential health services to communities who previously were without access to healthcare. The majority of these services are provided independently from the government health system, albeit with the government’s blessing. 

kenya florence

Florence Muthiani says a prayer in her church in Kenya

Photo: Tom Pilston

For example, during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, many pastors, priests and imams shared key messages on prevention and mobilised their communities to do the same. They also helped eliminate stigma and discrimination within their congregations and communities.

However, it’s important to recognise that religious institutions, customs, and practices have created, reinforced and been shaped by patriarchal structures. Religious and traditional leaders can be part of the problem of gender injustice, maintaining these structures and perpetuating social norms, but they can be, and are increasingly seen as, part of the solution. Their role in combating these unjust systems of oppression has never been more important and this demands that we work both within our respective faith structures and also reaching out and joining forces with secular movements.   

In the report, Christian Aid commits to and invites others to commit to action towards gender equality and the protection of women’s rights, with no exception. Practical measures are set out clearly for faith institutions and people of faith who believe in gender justice to follow. They are:

1.  Ensure more female leaders rise to positions of power and are able to sustain those positions

Faith institutions should increase female faith leaders and feminist theologians who have power and can connect with the lived experience of women and provide a more nuanced analysis of the role of religion on promoting gender equality.

2. Resource and/or implement intersectional approaches to development

Progressively and timely, resource and/or apply intersectional approaches to development that consider other vulnerabilities - such as race, ethnicity, social class, disability - and protect and advance women’s and girls’ equal rights to safety; a healthy environment; economic advancement; freedom from exploitation, violence and discrimination; education and health.

3. Support and deliver action to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls within churches

Encourage and accompany the creation and implementation of procedures for the prevention, detection and attention to sexual violence and gender-based violence inside churches and faith-based organisations.

4. Work on theological and faith understandings which put a stop to gender stereotypes that limit women’s rights and agency and instead build narratives that contribute to equality and justice for all genders

Engage in continuous dialogue based on love, trust and transparency, within our networks (with partner organisations and churches) to strive towards a change in societal norms, harmful attitudes related to gender roles - including negative masculinities, reproductive choices, human sexuality, child marriage, and stigmatisation of HIV and AIDS, among other issues - for mutual learning and better realisation of gender justice and sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

In addition, promote awareness and information for overcoming existing taboos and resistance in addressing comprehensive sexuality education in churches and on other issues such as non-discrimination in relation to caste, race, religion and ethnicity.

5. Promote and protect the human rights of women through sermons and theological interpretations

Make themselves, and call on all other stakeholders to be, accountable for all human rights commitments and finance, promote and/or deliver human rights literacy training to congregations and external stakeholders.

Faith actors, such as Christian Aid, have a unique role to play and they should commit to play it. And by working together with women’s rights groups, they have the potential to strengthen movements for gender justice and to demonstrate that religious voices can, and must, uphold women’s rights. We must all stand together in the fight against gender injustice.

6 March 2020