The world is going through a period of increasing conservatism. There is a tendency to turn away from universal human rights, towards more dogmatic beliefs. The impact of this shift has disproportionate consequences for women, with limitations to their rights, the reinforcement of the male hierarchy and the marginalisation of sexual and gender diversity. Prevention+ is a five-year multi-country programme that envisions a world where healthy, respectful, and equal relationships are the norm. A key part of the programme involves working with religious leaders to end gender-based violence (GBV).
It was against this backdrop that leaders from religious communities, as well as representatives of governments and civil society organisations, met in Rotterdam in the Netherlands from 4 to 7 March to exchange approaches and best practices in working together to end GBV globally. Participants of the learning event, came from nine countries, including Lebanon, Uganda, Rwanda, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sierra Leone.
Bringing the voices of women scholars to the foreground
The event was opened by Rosana Iza, Director at Sisters of Islam, who gave an overview of the rise of conservatism and women’s rights within the Islamic context. “It’s not possible for us to disengage with religion”, she began. “We have to be part of that conversation.”
She also talked about the link between the rise of religious conservatism, economics and gender relations: “As long as women aren’t central to the idea of the state and economy, they will be marginalised. The old framework is maintained, while the reality changed.” She concluded on a positive note, stating there are actually more and more women scholars in religious communities.
“The question remains, however, how do we bring their voices to the foreground?”
After the opening, the participants identified their most important personal values. The leaders talked about values as openness, transparency, integrity, love and peace. When comparing, they concluded that there are more values that unite us than divide us. “We share a lot of the same values, wherever we come from. Issues start when power, politics and interpretation comes into play. We need to analyse the context, in order to be able to implement the shared values.”
Exchanging effective approaches
The second day focused on exchange. Each participating country shared concrete examples of how they work with religious communities to prevent GBV. In Uganda, Prevention+ established a Faith Leaders’ Forum on GBV. These religious leaders, including Bishop Kiptoo Paul Masaba who took part in the Rotterdam event, now include violence prevention in their sermons. “We had over 200 religious, cultural and government representatives come together last week to denounce FGM”, he said. “I really appreciate bringing religious leaders on board. It’s a great opportunity as our huge congregations form perfect entry points to talk about these topics.”
Lebanese Prevention+ Partner, Abaad also engaged with four prominent religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, in a public campaign addressing violence against women, called ‘We Believe’. “We used the undeniable ability of religious leaders to change the minds of many people.”
Dialogue and collaboration
A highlight of the event, was a very special meeting with local partnership (H)echt Verbonden. This Rotterdam-based collaboration works with religious communities to combat forced and hidden marriages. The special dialogue was opened by the vice-mayor of Rotterdam, Judith Bokhove: “You can make a difference,” she told the religious leaders. “Religious communities speaking out against forced marriage is a very clear message, that should also be carried out internationally”, she said. At the same time, the dialogue offered a very special opportunity for Rotterdammers to learn from the international guests.
Rutgers Executive Director, Ton Coenen, talked about the importance of the exchange and for the Netherlands to recognise its own prevalence of gender inequality and violence: “50 per cent of Dutch women have experienced GBV. The issues we are talking about here, happen all across the world. This evening’s outcomes will serve as valid input for our vision and concrete strategies to strengthening our partnerships with religious leaders on important, though sensitive, issues. Here and now, and in near future, in The Netherlands and in so many other countries of the world.”