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.