CSW60 Engaging Faith Communities to Implement the SDGs

CSW60 logoThe 60th Commission on the Status of Women was held at the UN in New York in March 2016. An Introduction to the Commission and the Agreed Conclusions can be found in the entry three below this one. The following is a report on one of the events during the Commission.


Engaging Faith Communities to Implement the Sustainable Development Goals: Achieving Gender Justice and Eliminating Violence against Women and Girls       CSW60 Side Event March 16, 2016

Organized by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the US Federation for Middle East Peace, Islamic Relief Worldwide, and The Lutheran World Foundation, this panel presented views I am not ordinarily exposed to.

Moderator Salwa Kader, president of the US Federation for Middle East Peace, explained that the OIC was founded right after 9/11 to foster dialogue among peoples. The group works against human trafficking and for the empowerment of women in 17 countries.

Jesca Mnari, a young Tanzanian leader at World YWCA, spoke of challenging gender inequality by using her faith. As a child, she saw that the Bible says all are equal in eyes of God and wondered why women had to submit to men. As she grew up, she wondered further why faith communities are not committed to protecting the human rights of girls and women, which she sees as a “faith call.” In her work, she encourages women to have their own opinions, even when society demands that they submit to their husbands, and works to promote education to achieve true equality between men and women.

Pastor Cibele Kuss, a Brazilian with the Lutheran World Foundation, spoke of the human rights crises in Brazil. Of the 207 million residents, 15 women are killed each day, homosexual people are murdered each day, and there is a rape every few minutes. She sees much of this violence coming from the shift to messianic evangelical religions, with faith-based violence increasing by 460%, according to the official registry. Policy is not helpful, as rape has been a crime in Brazil only since the 1990s, and in 2014 a Supreme Court suit took action against an official for saying that she did not deserve to be raped.

She cited an increasing evangelical movement to degrade women’s rights, reduce financial support, and give little legal support for those who speak out against abuse. She called on religious organizations to speak for gender justice and to make interfaith efforts to change policies and practices. Particular efforts are needed to protect indigenous people, who are being targeted, as was a little girl who was stones as she returned from worship.

An Interfaith coalition is beginning to gather to press for human rights policy, to commit public acts of solidarity, and to publicize the violations by fundamentalist groups

Ms. Sharifa Abdulaziz, a Gender Advisor for Islamic Relief Worldwide, from London, spoke of the need for capacity-building in communities, to ensure they have the power, knowledge, confidence, and skills to participate in decision making, directions and development.

Faith-based organizations, she said, can be very influential in making changes because they are at the grassroots and embody the values of the community, and especially because they incorporate the spiritual into health, education, politics and other phases of human development.

This first-hand knowledge can be invaluable in making advances. For instance, one challenge in the Ebola crisis was convincing local people to hand over the bodies of infected relatives for safe burial. Faith-based groups worked with the health organizations to develop safe and religiously acceptable burial rites.

Dr. Azza Karam, a UN Senior Advisor to the UN Population Fund, spoke of the need to learn from the differing traditions in Africa, the Middle East and the West, for instance in developing relations between military and religious groups, ways of forming policy, and identifying the needs of young people. The UN Population Fund is concerned with much more than reproductive health; a current focus is on migrating peoples and where they will live. People from third world countries, she said, cannot understand that some pregnancies might not be wanted.

She spoke of the need for the UN to pay more attention to religious groups in achieving its goals,  citing the fact that 30-40% of all basic services are provided by religious organizations. The UN is only beginning to understand the importance of involving religious leaders in their work. A great need is to expand the conversations about terrorism to include other kinds of violence, such as gangs and violence against women. Religious and secular women’s groups are beginning to take action on this. She advised us all to start the dialogue with our neighbors.

The Question and Answer period ranged from early contributions of women in Islamic countries, such as Sultanas founding educational institutions and women contributing to developing Egypt’s university even before they could attend, to misconceptions about religion as an excuse for violence against women. Dr. Karam suggested that women need to emulate the “old boys networks” to develop faith-based resistance to violence. She cited as inspiration a line from the Koran in which Allah speaks of creating differences among people so that we would get to know each other more deeply.

A person from Somalia explained that this country just developed some sexual laws because religious leaders were involved in the process from the start. This mirrors the SDG principle that all sectors of society should be involved in any changes that will affect them.

Importance of Women in Interfaith Dialogues

As part of the 60th convening of the Commission on the Status of Women, on March 16, the United Federation for Peacekeeping and Sustainable Development (formerly U.S. Federation for Middle East Peace) presented a session titled, “In What Ways Can Increased Engagement of Women in Interfaith Dialogues Contribute to Advances in the Search for Sustainable Peace?”

Moderator Salif Kader, president of the Federation, opened by commenting on how disappointing and disheartening she finds all the hate in the media. In our effort to fight all aggression, she said, the only way we have is communication, dialogue. Women suffer most from aggression, but we can make difference to stop all atrocities in name of religion.

Rabbi Danielle Stillman, director of Jewish Student Life and Chaplain at Lehigh University, shared her varied experiences of Jewish, Hinduism (her degree topic at Harvard Divinity School) and the religion of Tibet.

Rabbi Stillman began with a traditional Hebrew saying: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” She certainly embodies that! Her interest in religions began when she was an undergraduate, she explained, watching the dedication with which Tibetan women went about picking up worms at the Dalai Lama’s house, to keep them from injury.

On another excursion, to Jerusalem, a friend who had made friends with Palestinian women helped her to value the importance of establishing relationships. The women were eager to learn about each others’ religion, asking to visit churches and synagogues.

In interfaith dialogue, she concluded, we learn that every person is really in the image of God. She mentioned a recent dinner where she sat with a food service person who catered the regular Sabbath night dinners. He said that he had always wanted to know what happened at the dinner he catered. When he spoke of his love of God and his assurance that Jesus is always with him, she saw God in his face.

Finally, she reminded us that role models are important than stereotypes; we must establish relationships with people of different beliefs.

Guang Guo Shih, a Buddhist abbess originally from Taiwan but now for a long time in New York, shared some Buddhist concepts about women. Feminine attributes exist in both men and women, she said, but women excel in interdependent relationality, compassion, caring for and loving others. In Chinese, compassion means easing the obstacles of others and so seeing the balance of the world. Buddhist practices of compassion include sharing wealth and power with others, and having courage to help others free themselves from fear.

Practices of compassion, she said, will lead to relationships and harmony, and ultimately to recognition of the interdependence of all humans. Meditation brings inner peace to each individual, and this grounds the peace of all humanity

She also told of a recent trip to Taiwan as part of a group making an international effort for meditation, to establish a homeless shelter and university of peace and compassion. All the work is being done by women.

Mrs. Kopila Thapa, of Katmandu, is Hindu and works in gender and development in South Asia, especially Thailand and Cambodia.  Mrs. Thapa explained that peace is an essential part of Hinduism, a part of the beauty and unity in diversity essential in Nepal’s constitution.

Some tenets of Hindu belief emphasize peace. For instance, belief in reincarnation leads to understanding that the violence we do will bring harm to us. Another is that inner peace must precede public peace.  Hindu organizations work to promote world peace, by working with homeless people and refugees from war. Such organizations practice their karma or good works, another principle of Hinduism.

Several women from the Moroccan parliament commented through translators. One spoke of the need to find common goods and needs, instead of focusing on differences. The main role of humans, she said, is to further the natural evolution of the world.  Women, she urged, must be both a subject of such discussions –especially on the roles of women – and agents of the discussions.

In Morocco, she said, all religions have a right to practice their own beliefs. To make interfaith dialogue possible and fruitful, we must go back to core of each religion, to see it without the cultural and ideological interpretations. Such dialogue is necessary to recognize the diversity of perspectives so the people can practice different religions within the same culture. This can build up the common culture.

Many Islamic leaders are looking back to the core of Islam and at the core of other religions, to see that they share the same basic beliefs.

The moderator mentioned that one of the Moroccan women saw their interfaith beliefs in her own life when her Muslim child was nursed by a Jewish woman.

The final panelist, Rev. Dionne Boissiere, is head of the ecumenical Church Center at the United Nations, run by United Methodist Women. (We have many of our meetings at the Center.) The Center is an ecumenical landmark, where interfaith prayers are held each Thursday.

Rev. Boissiere began by inviting us into a moment of silence, citing our tendency as women to “move around a lot.” She then declared that because (as Chairman Mao said) women hold up half the sky, women absolutely must be included in the work for sustainable development and peace with justice. We have to stand as who we are, with our complex experiences, to be part of all the dialogues.

We have to break down the walls of hate and prejudice, against extremism, which does not lend itself to reasonable thinking or to true religious practice. She is frustrated when dialogue ends with talk; we must listen and then work together toward an interfaith life.

The Question and Answer session focused on how to initiate and conduct interfaith dialogues. Answers included beginning with ourselves; continually asking if your words have offended another and explain you did not intend to offend; listen more than speak; identify ourselves clearly by our religion and express our belief in peace and opposition to prejudice and hate speech; make every space we are in a sacred space, where all are valued as holy; work with organizations from other faith, for instance, against human trafficking.