Where Religion and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Meet.

By: Hendrica Okondo, Global Programme Manager SRHR and HIV and AIDS- Focal Point: AfricaImage

Although religious beliefs are a barrier for women to claim their rights, there are opportunities to work with religious leaders as not all religious groups are restrictive. There are some who are listening and meeting women in the difficult situations they live in. One way of working with religious groups is by looking at their values, especially with Christian groups. By looking at their Christian values we can address SRHR through the values of justice, compassion and love. There is also a way we can engage religious groups as there is a big gap between the rhetoric of the mainstream conservative groups and the realities within which the church operates and provides services so there is an element of compassion that can be used. Instead of profiling all faith communities as conservative and difficult to work with, we might want to think about engaging with them by having dialogues. Of course there are those that are inflexible and won’t change because it is within their hierarchal structures and traditional beliefs, but even within that there are common areas of engaging around women and children’s health. So as women’s rights activist and feminists we really need to start the dialogue.

As World YWCA and ARROW are funded through NORAD to have these dialogues, we also need to engage to make sure that they happen. The ultra-conservative groups may not want to discuss. But they are not against education. On the whole religious groups do not object to education or health, universal health or gender equality because it is in the fundamental basis of all religions. Every religion believes that everyone is created equal in the image of God. But it is in the traditions and norms that there is a difference, and therefore a backlash around the whole sexual rights debate and also in terms of women’s agency. So in some religions there is the whole promotion of men as the decision-maker and that women should not have agency. That is a restrictive view of religious texts.

We will be working with a circle of feminist theologians who will be coming from a theological perspective and collaborate with ARROW and working with sisters of Islam who are going to be looking from the Islamic side while we look at the Christian side. At the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) the religion leaders told us that they do not have the skills, whereas UN reports tells us these groups are powerful and well-resourced so there are mechanisms for having dialogue.

Religion for many women is the point of contact; it is the faith based organisations that provide the social support, education, health and social protection. So we need to look at what they provide at the community level. We need to go to them with a positive approach. It is not that everyone who is religious is wrong, for us as the World YWCA we are in both worlds because of our work on rights and advocacy, but we are also comfortable in the faith-based aspect because that is where our members are.

Due to the support that faith-based organisations provide they have a lot more influence in communities. It is also down to member states signing up to declarations and not implementing and not being held accountable as duty bearers. There is an accountability failure and that gap is met by faith based organisations.

Let’s not be naïve, there are groups at the end of the spectrum who want to control women’s agency and there is a backlash. But what we’re saying is why we can’t recreate 1994 at the ICPD conference, there were much more conservative views then, but we were able to have dialogues.

A standalone gender equality goal must include SRHR. Gender has to be a priority over other categories race, disability etc because no matter what you are always worse off as a women. It is a gender and human rights issue.

CEDAW through a Finnish young woman’s eyes

By Katri Jussila, YWCA of Finland. Katri recently attended the 57th CEDAW Convention, Geneva, Switzerland below she shares her reflections. 

The YWCA of Finland’s board afforded me the wonderful opportunity to observe the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW between the 17th – 20th February, 2014 in Geneva.

It was a week of learning experiences for me and it was also a dream come true. I had a dream that one day I would get an opportunity to see the UN’s activities in practise. However, I did not know that the day will come so soon. Some might call it lucky but I prefer to use the word Guidance. I was so excited about the week that I prepared by reading the Finnish government report and the non-governmental organizations, NGOs, shadow reports, but I was still excited by what awaited me.Image

On 17th February, the first session, I attended was the session where NGOs of the reporting country gave their opinion of their country’s greatest barrier to women’s human rights. On Wednesday, the day before the Finnish government was due to meet with the CEDAW committee; there was a lunch briefing with the NGO representatives and members of the CEDAW committee. It was a very interesting conversation as the CEDAW experts got the opportunity to ask questions to the NGOs on questions they had relating to both the reports from the governments and the shadow reports. The NGO representatives also had the opportunity to share any additional information with the experts. What was even more amazing to me was that out of the 23 member expert committee, there was only one man and he was, Finnish – Mr. Niklas Bruun.

On the 20th February, when the Finnish delegation met with the CEDAW experts, my expectations were really high and the day proved to be very interesting. It was amazing to know that many people class Finland as one of the happiest countries in the world, but yet still there are so many human rights issues we still face, especially against women.

In my small country there are many cases of violence against women and I agreed with the experts when they stated that the Finnish government does not recognise this as a big enough problem. They found it to be a trend to use language which neutralises the topic. Violence against women and has been replaced by the use of terms such as violence in a close relationship.

There was also a lot of mention of women in minority groups being discriminated against, for example the immigrants’ women and women with disabilities, as there is no data available on these groups of women. Women also continue to earn less than men for doing the same work.

The Committee also noted that Finland over the years has been a great example to other countries on gender equality, for example women gained the right to vote in 1906, and many high positions have been and are held by women such as Presidents, prime ministers and ministers of finance. But still there are a number of cases about women´s human rights that have remained unchanged for a long time.

I anxiously await the Committee’s recommendations to our country and how these recommendations will be put into practice before the next CEDAW report four years from now.

There were also many nice things I enjoyed about my trip to Geneva; I had the opportunity to get to know the work of the World Office and I had the opportunity to meet with some great people: Marie -Claude, Sharon, Khalea and Lindsay. I want to say thank you all and to all others who I had the chance to meet!

In Her Shoes

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Khalea Callender

By Khalea Callender, World YWCA Programme Associate, from YWCA of Trinidad and Tobago.

On January 31st, 2014, Jayanti Dubay-Ramrattan, a 32-year-old nurse and mother of one who was missing for more than one week, was found dead in the trunk of her car which was parked in the hospital car park of where she worked. Police said the body was found by crime scene investigators (CSI) while examining her vehicle. She was strangled, stabbed and beaten to death by who police believe was her husband. Her body was clad only in her underwear and her nurse’s duster was found, shoved aside mere metres from her body.

This incident is not the first of its kind on the island of Trinidad and Tobago. Already, this year 2014, there have been 10 domestic violence murders in January alone. These types of incidences are beginning to cause great outrage throughout the country and the recent surge in domestic violence is becoming a grave concern for the YWCA of Trinidad and Tobago.

Although, the YWCA of Trinidad and Tobago (YWCATT) joins the nation in outrage and mourning of the recent episodes of violence against women in the country, we have been advocating for its end long before the recent incidents. Since 2009, the YWCATT has been campaigning to raise awareness on gender based violence which transcends age, ability, status, race, ethnicity, education, nationality, sexual orientation and religion. We advocate for a society where all persons can live free of violence.

YWCATT uses a visual campaign, referred to as the “In Her Shoes” which is taken around the country raising awareness of gender based violence.  “In Her Shoes” exhibition is a Trinbagonian adaptation of the YWCA Scotland’s 104 pairs of shoes exhibition. It interactively showcases images, messages and stories on gender based violence. The pairs of shoes are strategically positioned to depict “a walk in her shoes” in solidarity with the women and men who suffered or who have lost their lives, at the hands of their abusers. The bags represent the emotional struggle that many in violent relationships experience as the contemplate leaving.

Agri Business For The Future Young Women of Africa

By Patience Mbah Atim, from Agro Hub Cameroon. Patience recently attended the African Union Summit, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia below she shares her reflections. 

Each time I think of African Union 2014 theme “Agriculture and Food Security” I say to myself ‘finally’. I wonder why it’s taken so long for them to come up with this theme and I must applaud whoever is behind this theme.



Permit me talk on this as a young woman and agricultural entrepreneur from a country where statistics says 70% of the country depends on agriculture for a livelihood (Cameroon). I have been opportune to attend some of the pre-summit meetings such as the Gender Is My Agenda Campaign (GIMAC) consultative meeting on gender mainstreaming from the angle of Empowering Women for Agriculture and Food Security. The two days meeting brought together women organisations, policy and decision makers. One of my favourite presentations was that of Dr Carlos Lopes, UN-Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa. He had all the statistics; ‘It is widely documented that women are the backbone of the African agricultural sector’.

In some countries, the female share of the agricultural labour force exceeds 55%, if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%, and this could raise total agricultural output in developing countries between 2.5-4%. Yes so we have heard and from many others but it’s enough! We are tired of being just a statistical value; of being just another woman somewhere in Africa. It’s about time our leaders realise we the young women and girls are the key to Africa’s development; I want to believe this is the driving force behind the African Union theme.

The economic contribution of the African woman has most often than not been neglected and undervalued. As a young woman in agriculture, the challenges are just so enormous; lack of access to land ownership, lack of capital and land inputs, market opportunities, gender bias and climate injustice. Empowering women economically is a paramount. The rural woman has to move from subsistence to sustainable agriculture. This can be achieved by investing and including the participation of young women and girls in sustainable agriculture that protects the environment and the farming community for the next generation.

A round of applause to the World Young Women’s Christian Association and it’s partners for bringing together 50 young women from across 13 countries in Africa, under the guidance of over 30 mentors to engage in an intergenerational dialogue with other women organisations, ambassadors, ministers, and policy and decision makers. Together we have put out a strong statement that marks out our priorities and recommendations. Our hope is to ensure our leaders all have a copy. We call on them to commit to ensuring we achieve the Future young Women and Girls Want.  Women account for 70% of food production in Africa, which is cultivated on just 1% of Africa’s arable land. Women’s contribution should be recognized and valued; their constraints, options, incentive and needs should be assessed and factored in the transformation agenda, then food insecurity will be history.

Feminism and Faith

By Erica Lewis, YWCA of Australia.

On the Facebook page of my campus feminist group there is a discussion happening about whether there are any significant differences between their work and the work of the campus atheist group. At the moment opinion is divided. Some see significant areas of compatibility. One response provides a link to discussions about sexism amongst atheist groups, and I added that ‘some feminists are women of faith’. I’m waiting to see what happens next, but I am puzzled by the suggestion that all atheists were feminists, and as usual left feeling a little bit odd as a feminist and woman of faith.

Erica Lewis

Erica Lewis

However, today, I have new material to support the discussions I have about why my position as a feminist and Christian and my work on women’s leadership is not as odd as some might at first think. I was passing time in the campus bookshop and as I often am was distracted by all of those concise introductions. Thumbing through Margaret Walters – Feminism – A Very Short Introduction I noticed something very interesting “Chapter 1 – The religious roots of feminism”. I’m really not sure I’ve ever before seen an introduction to western feminism begin in religion.

The chapter opens with

“Some of the first European women to speak out for themselves, and for their sex, did so within a religious framework, and in religious terms. It is perhaps not always easy, in our secular society, to bring them back to life: to recognise fully their courage, or to understand the implications, or the extent of their challenge to the status quo.”

and goes on to discuss the work of 11th century Abbess Hildegard of Bingen as a writer and composer, and Julian of Norwich (14/15th century) whose argument  for recognising the maternal aspects of the Divine have become a major influence on feminist theology. Fittingly, as I write this from the north of England, Walters ends her first chapter discussing the particularly prominent role of women and women’s organisations in non-conformist movements such as the Quakers in the 17th century.

The chapter also acknowledges (as do I) the teachings of the Church that have traditionally been used to oppresses women, Eve and original sin, the teachings of St Paul etc. But what is interesting to me is the herstory of women and faith I have failed to learn, and a wondering of how we answer the implicit challenge in Walters second sentence “to bring these women back to life”.

Too often when we talk of leaders or the work of leadership we recall the work of men. As Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, a notable leader and women of faith herself, has said

“Much of women’s leadership over the centuries has been invisible because the question of leadership has been viewed through gender-biased lenses.”

I’m reminded, once again, that it is not that women do not exercise leadership, but that our leadership work is often overlooked and forgotten, and that I need to actively look for herstory, to take the time to learn it and to find ways to share the herstory I know.

How are you learning or sharing herstory?

Insights from Addis Ababa

By Raissa Gaju, YWCA of Rwanda. 

My name is Raissa Gaju and Iam 12 years old from YWCA Rwanda.  It’s a privilege and honor for me to be at the 22nd African Union summit, the 23rd Gender is my Agenda Campaign, the World YWCA pre-summit Advocacy training in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. I am grateful to the World YWCA, YWCA of Rwanda and the organizers of this summit for hosting us. This summit brought together so many people and it has been my first time to be in the midst of so many people in the same place. I really loved the Ethiopian culture and people and I confirmed what I had read all along. The Ethiopian people are really friendly and they have a nice city. This is characteristic of hardworking people. Keep it up.

Raissa Gaju

Raissa Gaju

I have been volunteering with YWCA of Rwanda for several years and was inspired to volunteer in the YWCA after I made a visit to Nyabihu district and met young girls in a horrendous condition. I couldn’t hold my tears because this was so touching seeing them suffer, with nowhere to sleep, and some of them could hardly get any food. From that day I took a decision of volunteering through which I have managed to be near them, give them comfort, hope and look forward to making all girls around the world have their dignity and be confident. AS someone once said, “The greatest poverty is not the absence of money but a feeling of loneliness and a feeling of being unloved”. By being there for the girls, I have managed to give hope and restore a feeling of being loved among the girls. Participating in this summit has strengthened my commitment to serve fellow young women such that they move from vulnerability to leadership and thus empowerment.

I will continue to champion for the rights of young girls because I believe that all girls deserve a decent life and need someone to be there for them.