Friday, October 30, 2015

The role of culture and religion: constructively addressing ‘the elephant in the room 2/4

For many, faith is a source of strength, solace and learning. In many non‐Western societies, faith is inseparably intertwined with other aspects of life, including politics and development.
Religion plays an important role in shaping and influencing societal values, thus putting religious and faith leaders in positions of considerable authority and power. Separating religion and development is therefore both unproductive13 and unrealistic.
In particular, faith directly influences societal attitudes and behaviour towards women. Through centuries, women have played a significant role in furthering their faith with many women becoming martyrs and thinkers. However, women’s role in society is still undermined by the abuse and violence exercised against them. Instead of being part of the problem, faith can, and should, be part of the solution:
It is impossible to say you are committed to the poor and not know that two-thirds of the hungry of the world are women who get only the leftovers after their husband and children have eaten; two-thirds of the illiterate of the world are women enslaved by their lack of education as the chattel of men; two-thirds of the poorest of the poor, according to UN statistics, are women. And all of them ignored, rejected and omitted even from the language and the official theological development of the church. So much for life, so much for baptism. It is simply impossible to be really committed to the poor and not devote yourself to doing something to change the role and status of women in the world.
– Sister Joan Chittister OSB14
Given that half of religious followers are women, faith leaders have a responsibility to take a proactive position on issues such as violence against women and girls, encouraging the education of women and girls and ensuring that their rights are protected. Sister Joan Chittister insists that a patriarchal system is a system that is helpful to neither men nor women.15 In order to change the situation of women, it is important to change people’s perceptions.
An example of a successful model for such work is one of Progressio’s projects in Yemen, which works with organisations such as Half of Society in order to tackle the root causes of inequality and exclusion of women. The project advocates for women’s rights among broad sectors of society targeting some 25,000 women in two districts. Hanan Omar, head of the Half of Society NGO, said:
We need to change the negative attitudes towards women that they are not only wives, mothers or sisters, but also partners in the development process… Islamic Sharia ensured all civil rights for women but customs and traditions prevented enjoyment of those rights.
So we need to enforce laws and legislation guaranteeing both men and women’s rights together, as opposed to the prevailing situation, and this includes addressing women’s rights with regard to inheritance and rights in polygamous marriages... The absence of laws that protect women contributes to the further violation of their rights.16
Certain conservative religious sectors refuse to accept women’s contributions to their own societies, outside of the household. In post-conflict societies, this becomes more apparent given the weakness of governance structures responding to the needs of the population and the lack of political participation of women in those structures.
Religion could play a transformative role in changing behaviour and stereotypes. Faith leaders could support efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls by denouncing and condemning harmful practices. And faith leaders can become a catalyst for change by openly acknowledging and appreciating the contribution of women to their societies in terms of development and leadership. They can also be very influential in pressing for legal and policy reforms that address women’s inequality at local, national, regional and international level.
The ultimate goal is helping people to overcome barriers in order to enable them to speak with their own voice. Fragile states should support or adapt such methods which aim at overcoming structural barriers that keep women suppressed, given that there is a link between women, exclusion and poverty.

Authors: Lizzette Robleto-Gonzalez and Fatima Haase For further information, please contact: Lizzette Robleto-Gonzalez, policy officer on women and fragile states, Media enquiries: Esther Trewinnard,
Women and fragile states: Empowered women must be active participants in decision-making
Progressio policy briefing for the post-2015 discussions

13 Van Ommering, E, 2009, The roles of faith-based educational institutions in conflict transformation in fragile states, ICCO Alliance Working Group Religion and Education, icco%20alliance%20research%20report%20fbeis%20and%20conflict%20transformation%20in%20fragile%20states%20 -%20erik%20van%20ommering.pdf
14 Quoted in Justice and Peace Scotland magazine, Issue 3: 2013, p 9, Magazine/2013_issue3_jun.pdf
15 A conversation with Sr Joan Chittister, On women and progress in religion, 16 Quoted in Kim, D, 2012, Women’s rights in Yemen: Fighting discrimination against women, Progressio blog, http://www.

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