We must be agents of change and resistance

Since 1991, from 25th November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) until 10th December (Human Rights Day), communities around the world have mobilised for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. The dates are significant, naming the violence against women as a violation of human rights. 

In Latin America, where a woman is murdered by a man every hour, ACT members are determined to be agents of change and resistance. During 16 days of activism, members in the region mobilised people to come together, to reflect and share wisdom on what is needed for a life free of violence. Following these deep reflections and conversations, people were invited to paint a bench, a chair or object in a public space, red. The red bench / el banco rojo is emblematic of a place occupied by women and girls, who experience sexual and gender-based violence. Calling people to be aware, reflect and act. 

In Uganda, where 56% of women are abused by sexual partners, ACT members are mobilising religious leaders and faith communities to speak out, report abuse to the authorities and work to transform social norms. The Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda, Rt. Rev. Samuel Steven Kazimba Mugalu used mainstream media channels to affirm the Church’s commitment to ending Gender-Based Violence: “Until violence against women is finally eradicated, the Christian vision of justice can never be realised’. The Church of Uganda Gender and Social Justice Officer, Irene Anena, participated in several national talk shows focusing on patriarchy, transformative masculinities and action. 

A focus in our communications this year was on the different forms of Gender-Based Violence. ACT members and forums contributed to an Illustrated Guide to Gender-Based Violence, (also in Spanish here) which has been shared across social media. Definitions produced by our members were accompanied by strong calls for action. 

ACT Alliance also co-convened a Conversatorio focusing on Black, Decolonising and Feminist Theologies for Gender Justice. Speakers included Rev. Dr. Jeannette Ada Maina, Rev. Dr Elvira Moisés da Silva Cazombo, Dr. Mary ‘Joy’ Philip, and Dr. Nontando Hadebe. A focus for the discussion was how an intersectional perspective implies hearing voices that speak different languages and accents, that communicate in different ways and structures, producing diverse knowledge(s).

Unequal systems

Gender differences and inequalities are breeding discrimination, exclusion, and violence, especially for women, but also for men who are not fitting in the hegemonic models of masculinities. For many, this is a daily fight for survival in diverse contexts, including our faith spaces. 

Colonialism and patriarchy are systems constructed with an understanding of power that cannot deal with diversity. There is an intrinsic power controlling knowledges and bodies. It expropriates the collective production of knowledges and wisdoms. Colonisation is also a system that erases the diversity of religious and faith experiences. It has a pretension to homogenise the divine experience with God.

An intersectional perspective implies hearing voices that speak different languages and accents, that communicate in different ways and mindsets, structures, producing diverse knowledge. This approach also infers in an inter-religious dialogue and interfaith practice and coexistence. Respect and dialogue are binding relations, in harmonic and peaceful collaborations. “Grace and faithfulness come together, justice and peace kiss each other.” (Ps 85:11).

In the past year, we held many thought-provoking conversations within the Gender Programme on several topics:  transformative masculinities, economic justice, family law, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights among others. 

We convened these shared spaces in collaboration with members, partners and ecumenical sister agencies. We believe these are important conversations to have, but it is also important to walk together in action. To make sure that our theologies, practises and programmes, contribute to deconstructing oppressive structures, and imagine a world of justice. 

As the year comes to a close, we would like to thank all the members and partners who walked together on the road to equality. 

Last week marked the end of the 16 days of activism against Gender Based Violence and your contribution to this campaign was incredible. We raised our collective voice to call for an end of all forms of GBV and demand greater action and accountability to prevent violence against women and girls in all their diversities.

In this blessed period of advent I invite all of us to reflect on the biblical text: conversations between Mary and Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth’s words and actions invite us to reflect on our own openness to the ways that God chooses to act in our world. What is God doing through unexpected people in our society today? Where is God at work through people whom our neighbours and fellow church members often exclude or treat as shameful? Will we listen to the Spirit’s prompting when the bearers of God’s new reality show up on our doorstep?

In solidarity,

The Gender Justice team

Realising Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice for All

Rudelmar Bueno de Faria, General Secretary, ACT Alliance

Following the Nairobi Summit in 2019, which aimed to accelerate progress for sexual and reproductive health and rights, I have served on the High-Level Commission on the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 Follow-up. Our task as an independent advisory body is to track steps forward, and sadly also pushbacks, on promises made at the landmark 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. We have now published our first report: ‘No Exceptions, No Exclusions: Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice for All’ (download in English and French).

One of the recommendations included in the new report is to ‘inspire broad support and action’. As the report acknowledges, this includes faith-based leaders and organisations, who are often granted unique and trusted relationships within communities. As eighty-four per cent of the world’s population self-identify as members of a faith group, faith principles and faith leaders’ teachings shape social norms and values, as well as influence government policies and practices. 

Sexual and reproductive justice will not be achieved simply by changing laws, reducing poverty, or improving education and health care services. While these are all essential  steps, we also need to challenge and eliminate discriminatory social norms that constrain bodily autonomy, agency and rights.  To this end, the ACT Gender Justice Programme, is working closely with our members, national and regional forums and platforms to harness the value-based power of faith actors to advance Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. 

A good example of this model is the work of the ACT Argentina Forum, which is confronting fundamentalist and hateful discourses which oppress, manipulate, and deny the fundamental freedoms of women and girls in all their diversity.The forum is developing and sharing liberating faith narratives and theological perspectives that encourage the rereading of sacred texts and cultural contexts. It is also creating safe spaces of trust, which are open,  intimate and focused on active listening without judgement.  Together, we are working to support and amplify those prophetic voices who are courageously calling for transformative action to achieve justice for all. 

In Argentina, as in many countries where our members work, the struggle for justice is also part of the challenge in achieving Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. Patriarchal systems and structures, limited resources, and discriminatory social norms, govern and limit  the decisions and agency of women and girls. In Argentina, faith-based organisations are now demanding financial resources to ensure comprehensive health services for women and girls and  social protection that puts  the rights of women and girls at the centre. This includes advocating for and contributing to the implementation of Comprehensive Sexual Education, which has been mandatory across the curriculum in Argentina since 2006, but continues to face resistance. 

As the High-Level Commission Report argues, adolescents and youth are paying a heavy price for the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence shows that during the pandemic girls are at a higher risk of missing out on school, alongside an intensifying resistance to comprehensive sexuality education in many countries: ‘Due to the pandemic, 2020 saw the largest surge in girls becoming brides in 25 years, and additional 10 million girls are likely to enter into child marriage by 2030’ (2021: 28). As people of faith, we are called upon to serve the most vulnerable within our communities, and to work for justice.  

The report concludes with the Commission’s call for action by all relevant partners, including governments, civil society, the private sector, academia, the United Nations and other international bodies to join forces. We are calling for ambitious action to end shortfalls in sexual and reproductive health and rights that cost lives, destroy health and slow development around the world. No Exceptions. No Exclusions. Rudelmar Bueno de Faria is the General Secretary of the ACT Alliance, a coalition of churches and faith based organisations engaged in humanitarian, development and advocacy work in the world, consisting of 137 members working together in over 120 countries to create positive and sustainable change in the lives of poor and marginalised people, regardless of their religion, politics, gender, sexual orientation, race or nationality in keeping with the highest international codes and standards. Rudelmar is the co-chair and member of the United Nations Multi-Faith Advisory Council, member of the UN Steering Committee for the Implementation of the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence, Commissioner of the UN High-Level Commission of the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 Follow-up and member of the COVAX Facility AMC Engagement Group.

CEDAW – 40 years as a superhero of women’s human rights

You probably know the phrase “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”, one of the favourite slogans of the feminist movement in the 80s and 90s. It is perhaps most notably known from Hilary Rodham Clinton’s landmark speech at the Beijing Conference 1995. It may have been a radical move by Clinton to use that slogan at that point in time, but women’s rights had already been integrated as one of the core international human rights treaties in 1979 by the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by the United Nation’s General Assembly. And on this day 40 years ago, the 3rd of September 1981, the treaty entered into force as an international treaty. This is definitely worth celebrating! 

Today the CEDAW convention is one of the nine core international human rights treaties and has been ratified by 189 states, making it one of the most widely ratified international human rights treaties. At the same time, this superhero of women’s human rights is also the international human rights treaty with the most reservations. Isn’t it ironic?  

Time to celebrate progress made and continue to push forward

I think it’s worth taking a moment and reflecting on the notion that women’s rights are human rights in the light of the current push back. The notion could certainly not be taken for granted at the time of the adoption of the CEDAW convention. Sadly, the same can be said now. Admittingly, many things have happened in terms of gender equality since 1979 or 1981, but we have also seen some real push back. 

We see it everywhere. In different countries around the world, new bills are introduced to “protect the family”. Anti-rights actors are mobilising on the global arenas to stop progressive and inclusive language in agreed conclusions and resolutions. While in ecumenical conversations some persons and churches are starting to question the use of the term gender justice which has been used in the ecumenical movement for decades.

The content of the convention is still highly relevant today. Only 25% of all national parliamentarians are women (article 7 on political and public life), over 50 countries around the world have nationality laws that discriminate on the basis of sex (article 9 on nationality), it is estimated that 12 million women may have been unable to access family planning services due to the COVID-pandemic (article 12 on health services incl family planning), nearly 40% of all states still have laws that constrain women’s decision to join and remain in the work force (article 11 on employment), only 45% of mothers with newborns receive a maternity benefit (article 11 on employment), and in 23 countries the marriage age is under 18 and in 116 countries it’s 18 years but with exceptions – which means allowing for child marriage (article 16 on marriage and family matters). The list can go on and on. 

CEDAW – What’s religion got to do with it? 

If you look at the 440 normative reservations entered by states against CEDAW, over 60% are based on/motivated by religion, belief or religious tradition. Yet, religion and religious actors can play a crucial role in gender equality and the fulfilment of the obligations under the CEDAW convention, in particular when it comes to family law (and stereotypes and norms). And so much work is also being done in this field. 

Family law is one area of legislation that is crucial for the fulfilment of women’s rights. It regulates matters such as women’s legal status before, during or after marriage, the legal age of marriage, domestic violence, marital rape, custody of children, inheritance as well as ownership of land and property. It covers several rights set out in the CEDAW convention, particularly article 15 on equality before the law and article 16 on marriage and family relations (the CEDAW Committee has further elaborated on family law in its general recommendation No 21). Article 16 is the most reserved article of all UN human rights treaties and researchers Basak Cali and Mariana Montoya describe the article as “alighting rod’ for religion-based reservations”

Family law is also an area of legislation that religious authorities tend to have significant influence or direct power over. Many countries recognize parallel religious authority over marriage and family matters through religious family law as well as through religious court jurisdiction over such matters.  This means for instance that religious leaders and institutions have direct power over issues such as legal age of marriage and whether men and women have equal rights to own and inherit property, issues that are covered in CEDAW art 16. Under Christian family laws, there are often unequal grounds for divorce (making it easier – but not necessarily easy – for men to divorce). Domestic violence is extremely seldom considered as grounds for divorce or annulment. 

Faith actors are and can play a crucial role through advocacy in their own religious communities to promote legislative and normative change as well as through shadow reporting to the CEDAW committee regarding discriminatory religious legislation, norms or practices. And perhaps just as important in this time of polarisation, through showcasing positive examples of how these can be changed. One example is the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) to adopt a gender equal family law.* 

To achieve real change in the lives of women and girls around the world, we must work for legal reform as well as address destructive norms that keep people, you and me, from realising our full potential. And the CEDAW convention is a great tool to push for change. It is really a superhero for human rights.


Joanna Lilja

Joanna Lilja is Deputy Policy Director and Policy Adviser for Gender Justice and Equality at Act Church of Sweden. Joanna also serves on the ACT Alliance Gender Justice Reference Group, and chairs the Gender Policy and Advocacy Task Group.  

* Read more about how faith based actors can use CEDAW to hold states accountable and the work of the ELCJHL in Affirming Women’s Human Rights, 2019. You can also listen to Scarlet Bishara, judge in the ELCJHL’s Ecclesiastical court, sharing the experiences of the church in this recording of the CSW65 event Equality in Family Law: Committing to Reform.