In my experience, religion has had both a positive and negative effect in women's lives. As a Christian woman, my faith is a source of strength and encouragement. It is a source of my understanding of who I am: a child of God, created in the image of God. However, I am familiar with the way religion has been manipulated or misinterpreted to incite or sustain gender inequality and discrimination and to perpetuate gender-based violence.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence against women is a major public health problem and a violation of human rights. Due to cultural and religious gender norms, women and girls lack the social and economic power to control their bodies, particularly as it relates to sexual matters. Consequently, they are not in a position to negotiate safe sex with their partners. Women and girls are now at the center of the global HIV and AIDS epidemic.
I believe that God is concerned that girls and women continue to suffer discrimination and gender-based violence, but where is the Church in this, particularly on the issue of gender equality and the rights of girls and women around the world?
Although, faith-based organizations (FBOs) are working on development, education, health and economic empowerment, FBOs and religious institutions are part of the problem as well. In some cases, these groups accept gender beliefs and practices that are not consistent with the attitudes modeled in Jesus' life.
Globally, the influence of religious teachings and practices is profound. This influence shapes policies and attitudes. Take for example sexual and reproductive health. Lack of access to family planning information and services can lead to serious health complications and death. Yet, there are religious traditions that will condemn scientifically-proven family planning methods. Others embrace artificial family planning methods but are not ready to fully relinquish patriarchal teachings on gender. In some circles, condemnation of the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection and unwanted pregnancies prevails.
People of faith accept that God created men and women and gave them different roles. However, when women ask for the recognition of their human rights, they are told that their servitude status is ordained by God. As women, do we then blame God for our female gender? Blaming God fails to understand gender roles as a social and human construction. It is not how we are created that poses the problems, but how we are treated because of how God created us.
I believe that gender equality is God's agenda and it is engrained in the core of our belief structure: Genesis 1:27. God created males and females equal, but patriarchy wants us to believe otherwise. My physical appearance should never be a basis of discrimination or inspire violence of any form. For centuries, churches have discriminated against women and girls and have thus undermined or tried to destroy and distort the image of God in a female. It is counter-productive to provide women and girls with medical services for injuries sustained because of unequal gender relations, or lack of contraceptives, while we are not at the same time ensuring that we eradicate the conditions that make them vulnerable. Failure to end teachings and practices that sanction gender inequality is not only perpetuating suffering and death, but it undermines God's agenda.
As women of faith, we must ask our faith communities to right the wrongs that have been done to women and girls through perpetuating gender inequality and change our teachings and attitudes in order to facilitate abundant life for all God's creation. Additionally, we need to call upon the international community and the women's movement to pay attention to religious voices that are working to shift the paradigm and discourse on gender issues. These voices may very well be the entry point for societal transformation in gender relations.
I serve on the board of Christian Connections for International Health, a faith-based organization whose members are taking on issues of family planning and gender-based violence. We are gathering June 7-10 in Arlington, Va., to specifically talk about gender and health, and it is my hope that our discussions will work toward eradicating inequality.
When I was a little girl, I asked my Dad why he did not beat my Mom, or discriminate against his daughters in education like the other men in our community. He said that it was because of Jesus. His response and the nurturing I received from both of my parents make me able to affirm that gender equality is God's agenda because it fosters health, security and development.
Gender equality is the theme of the Christian Connections for International Health 2013 conference, to be held June 7-10 in Arlington, Va. For more information about the work of faith-based organizations in family planning and gender issues, visit the Resources section of www.ccih.org.