What can faith communities do?

Culture and tradition as tools for transformation

Culture, although constantly changing, is often presented as a reason to resist change and people regularly hide behind it to justify the subordinate role of women and/or the discrimination of sexual minorities. Within this context, it is vital that those people in faith communities, especially those who hold power, play a role in promoting equality, and challenging forms of discrimination against people who have less power because of patriarchy and harmful gender and sexuality norms. Culture must therefore be viewed not as an impediment, but as a means of engaging communities in sustainable change processes with regard to gender equality.

Shaping gender, culture, tradition and religion

In conventional settings, traditional and cultural norms and practices are imposed and driven from the top. Values are defined by the religious, traditional, political and economic elite and, sources or morality are taken from external codes and statutes said to be in the best interests of the subordinates.

This can be described as blind obedience to authority. It is received with resentment and resistance because it is imposed. In this scenario dos and don’ts are given but, no whys. This approach does not necessarily develop a moral character since compliance with regulations is often enforced by a process of sanctions and rewards. The unthinking and unquestioning nature of obedience makes it a potential tool for abuse since, even when authority deviates from the standards, they can’t be challenged fostering a culture of dependence and ignorance.

Culture and tradition can also be shaped in a transformative way based on choice, inclusiveness and a quest for the common good. The transformative approach allows for informed, rational consent and compliance and gives reasons and consequences for choices. Moral character is developed and rigorous debate and sharing of information are necessary to reach consensus. Through this approach, practices that affirm the value of all community members can gain priority and alternatives can be created for those that do not where simply doing away with them is inappropriate. 

What can religious and traditional leaders do? An example from Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Faith Leader Toolkit offers the following suggestion, based on their in-country experience of working with faith leaders. 

The NGO Council on Violence Against Children recommends that councils, heads and spiritual leaders, together with any child and women’s protection authorities within them, should carry out a children’s and women’s rights-based review of practices linked to their religion which may directly or indirectly harm women and children and systematically support their prohibition and elimination. Any relevant religion-based law should be reviewed for its full compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights instruments. 

International and regional religious and inter-faith bodies should place the issue of harmful practices, which have been linked to religion and affect children on their agendas, working at national, regional and international levels to identify and condemn all such practices and to support moves to prohibit and eliminate them.#

Read more: EOTC Faith Leader Toolkit