Faith and Gender Justice


Deacon Elineide Ferreira de Oliveira who runs a safe house in Brazil. by Christian Aid / Tom Price

It’s clear that we will not achieve gender equality unless we work positively with faith communities, including with men and boys, writes Helen Dennis.

Asked why he called himself a ‘feminist’ and had brought forward a gender equal Cabinet following his election last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answered rather dryly – ‘because it’s 2015’.

I think that perhaps sums up the feeling of many gender justice activists – we feel somewhat exasperated that women’s rights are still contested, that so little progress has been made since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

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As a woman of faith, I feel this frustration immensely. I have always taken from scripture, the notion of liberation and justice. In my own life, it has been the very faith which many see as an obstacle to progress and equality, which inspired me to take up positions of leadership in both church and politics.

I have struggled to relate to readings of scripture which limit women and girls, and which take the cultural norms around gender roles at a given time in history, and universalize them. And I certainly struggle when I hear these interpretations repeated back to me today.

In 2000, a movement called ‘Ecumenical Women’ was founded specifically to combat the increasingly conservative religious presence at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York; attended this year, among others, by myself and Justin Trudeau!

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In my view, Ecumenical Women now provides the most inspiring, energetic and hopeful space during the Summit. At this year’s CSW, we saw an unprecedented presence from faith-based organizations campaigning for gender equality. These included: a ‘Faith and Feminism Working Group’; an official side event supported by UN Women and Christian Aid partner, the World YWCA; and an offering from ‘Side by Side’ – the emerging global movement for gender justice.

With a proliferation of other events exploring the relationship between faith and gender, it does feel like the UN and the wider global community is finally waking up to the power of faith in people’s lives. I am pretty clear that we will not achieve gender equality unless we work positively with faith communities, including with men and boys.

This was emphasized by Ann Kargbo, from a Christian Aid partner Rehabilitation & Development Agency (RADA) in Sierra Leone. Ann, who has been working on topics such as gender-based violence and women’s economic empowerment in northern Sierra Leone, understands that power relations need to be tackled at the household level.

This is why RADA have started to work with an inter-faith network of leaders to dispel the myth that domestic violence is a ‘private matter’. It is also running a project on ‘gender model families’, a type of mentoring that supports families who want to live differently and challenge traditional gender roles.

Yet, too often the development sector has shied away from supporting this kind of work. However, there has to be a way of supporting the positive work of churches and faith groups without writing us all off as patriarchal misogynists.

If we take the example of Brazil, we can see a context where many churches have aligned themselves with conservative political forces seeking to roll back women’s rights. But in the midst of this, there are incredible faith leaders there such as the Rev Elineide Ferreira de Oliveira, a 30-year-old Anglican priest who runs the only church-run safe-house in Brazil. The refuge in the Amazon, supported by Christian Aid, offers sanctuary for women and their children fleeing domestic violence, and who need our backing and support.

Indeed, at a CSW event organized by Side by Side, we were encouraged to seek out those within our faith communities who are ‘thinking differently’ and who are often on the margins. ‘These people,’ one panellist said, ‘will be the change-makers’. I couldn’t agree more!

Helen Dennis is Senior Advisor on Poverty & Inequality at Christian Aid.

Will new global targets further women's rights?


'Missing MDGs' ignore the most marginalized women around the world. hdptcar under a Creative Commons Licence

‘The CSW never gets media coverage’, we were told, while sitting in a meeting of government delegates at one of the ‘missions’ to the UN. The name probably doesn’t help. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) sounds like something that has been kicked into the long grass, rather than what it is – the global decision-making body responsible for advancing gender equality and women’s rights.

This year’s CSW finished last Saturday, around two o'clock in the morning after a heavy round of negotiations, reminding us that so many of the things that many women take for granted, such as the right to live a life free from violence, the right to choose her life partner, the right to decent work and social protection, and the right to choose when to have children are still hugely contested around the world.

And this year, there was a lot at stake. Government negotiators and ministers, including three ministers from Britain, were considering what has, and hasn’t, worked in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – a set of goals to reduce global poverty – regarding the rights of women and girls. These delegates were joined by thousands of civil society representatives from across the globe.

The MDGs were established in 2000 and expire in 2015. Learning from them is essential for governments who are drafting the future ‘post-2015’ global goals and targets. These goals will continue to provide a focus on eradicating absolute poverty by 2030 and promoting sustainable development, aiming to support the poorest communities around the world who are more likely to be affected by the devastating effects of climate change. While there was a lot of support expressed for the MDGs at the meeting, there was also a lot of discussion about issues which were notably left out – ending violence against women and girls, addressing the burden of unpaid care work, ensuring equal land and inheritance rights, preventing early and forced marriages, and increasing the role of women in decision-making at every level. These are issues that need to be addressed if we are to have any hope of seriously eradicating global poverty.

It is easy to dismiss these global forums as mere talking shops, but a visit this week to one of Christian Aid’s partners, Corambiente, in Colombia, reminded me why we must not give up. Corambiente have established what they call a social business, working with indigenous women’s co-operatives in rural and mountainous regions to produce sustainable and organic food that they sell to city dwellers. By supporting the farmers they have not only helped them address the impacts of climate change and improve their farming techniques, but allowed the women who had previously only undertaken work in the home and had no decision making authority, to find a voice in the community.

Luis Carlos from Corambiente says that when they first started working with the women, many of them were silent and had low self-confidence as they'd always been treated as inferior to their male counterparts.

‘They had no faith in their own abilities. But now the women are working with the local mayor, who controls the community budget, to advise him on priorities for them and their neighbours.’

I attended the opening of a water treatment plant during my visit to the project, constructed as a direct result of advice from the women’s association who had highlighted the importance of clean water, especially at the local school.

The women explained to the mayor how rural communities like theirs continue to be disadvantaged. In particular, the women said that a lack of access to computers and the internet is impacting on their children’s education. These female voices are essential in the political process, and strong support for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the post-2015 agenda could help generate funding for these kinds of community development initiatives worldwide.

The conclusions that were eventually agreed last week at CSW were unequivocal in their call for a transformational stand-alone post-2015 gender goal, a goal which will be applicable in every country across the globe. The next step is a report on ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), a process which arose from the Rio +20 conference in June 2012 on sustainable development, to carry on where the CSW left off.

Christian Aid is urging the SDG report authors to include the ‘missing MDGs’, paying particular attention to the most marginalized women, such as migrant or indigenous women, and ensure that all goals and targets promote the role of women and girls. 

Change, like I saw in the lives of the Colombian women I met last week, will not happen overnight – but with the political will, policy and investment, as well as the pure determination and commitment of community leaders, a world of greater gender equality is possible.

Helen Dennis is Christian Aid's senior adviser on Poverty and Inequality.

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