During the 62nd CEDAW session held in November 2015, AWID, ARROW, SRI and the World Council of Churches presented a thematic briefing to the CEDAW Committee in Geneva titled “Religious Fundamentalisms, Extreme Interpretations of Religion and Gender Justice”
The aim of the briefing was to illustrate how rising religious fundamentalisms, across regions and religions, inhibit implementation of the CEDAW Convention and the accountability of states to their legal obligations under the Convention, and to share some of the existing best practices for the defence of women’s rights and gender justice. The CEDAW Committee is the treaty body that monitors the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Highlights from the Briefing
Isabel gave examples of how one set of discriminatory laws or practices often has knock-on effects for a vast array of women’s human rights, and described how gender inequality is a foundational element of all fundamentalist ideologies.
- Religious fundamentalisms are about power and coercion, they are rising across all contexts, and are a product of global structural inequalities
- Fundamentalist actors enforce homogenous interpretations of “culture” thereby denying women their right to participate in and define culture on equal terms with men
- Fundamentalist ideology excludes women from the public sphere, pushing them towards “traditional”, domestic roles
- However, fundamentalist movements also instrumentalize women’s participation, encouraging their political activity so long as it benefits the movement
- Gender is integral to constructing the “other” in fundamentalist ideology
Azra Abdul Cader
Azra illustrated the ways that religious interpretations effect on women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health (SRHR) even when not necessarily defined as “religious fundamentalism”
- Achieving SRHR means recognizing that a woman’s body is hers; she is a human being and a citizen of the state in her own right; with rights and capacity to exercise these rights
- Religious structures locate power with male authority figures, who often police women’s bodies and conduct. So achieving SRHR needs to take religion into account.
- However we name it, we are seeing the increasing influence of religion on state policies and processes that in turn, affect the rights of women and increase discrimination against them.
- Religious norms and can hinder the provision of contraceptive services, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), and may be employed to violate sexual rights.
- The power of religious institutions can hinder the implementation of laws and policies that promote SRHR
SRI (Sexual Rights Initiative)
Stuart detailed the influence of fundamentalist actors in inter-governmental spaces, such as the Human Rights Council and the treaty bodies.
- The influence of religious fundamentalisms can been seen in initiatives at the Human Rights Council on “traditional values” and “protection of the family”
- “Protection of the family” undermines the rights of women and young persons by overlooking the violations and control that take place within families
- The common thread running through these initiatives is the assumption that there exists a true original culture. In reality, this “original culture” is defined by those in power in both formal and informal institutions, including religious ones and is often combined with nationalism or ideas about ethnic superiority.
- Both civil society and human rights bodies are playing an important role in countering fundamentalist rhetoric
- There are links between the work of the treaty bodies and other human rights spaces, such as Special Procedure. The more the Committee engages with these issues and expands or clarifies concepts, the more chance there is for Special Rapporteurs to focus on them when reporting on implementation
- By making the links between religious fundamentalism and SRHR in its Concluding Observations and other processes, the CEDAW Committee provides a human rights framework around which one can work against religious fundamentalism, which is an invaluable tool for advocacy.
Fadoua Bakhadda from the Moroccan Family Planning Association (AMPF), a partner of ARROW, also shared her experiences of advocating for women’s abortion rights in the face of religious resistance, and Fulata Moyo from the World Council of Churches (WCC) spoke of their experience advocating for women’s rights from a progressive religious perspective.
Recommendations to the Committee
- Use General Recommendations, Concluding Observations, and questions to State Parties their reviews to emphasize the specific impacts of RFs and regressive interpretations of religion on women’s rights. This could include setting specific measures that States must consider to harmonize their customs, laws and policies with article 5 CEDAW so as to prevent such violations of women’s human rights, and promote accountability for ongoing violations.
- The CEDAW Committee’s upcoming General Recommendation updating GR 19 represents an important opportunity to raise and address these issues. The Committee can use this opportunity to develop a framework that furthers an understanding of the effects of anti-rights interpretations of religion on gender-based violence and to support more effective mechanisms to hold States accountable for ongoing violence against women and girls justified by the manipulation of religion (i.e. culturally-justified violence against women).
- Articulate clearly the influence regressive interpretations of religion can have on women’s and girls’ access to health and ensuring the right to health under article 12 in General Recommendations and Concluding Observations. Consider including the Committee’s ongoing and expanding analysis into a new General Recommendation on article 12, following up General Recommendation 24, which highlights religious fundamentalisms’ impact as a cross-cutting issue.
- Emphasize in Concluding Observations and General Recommendations the obligations of States parties to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women and girls in all areas of social and cultural life to ensure, on a basis of equality, the right to participate in all aspects of cultural life under article 13 CEDAW. This should include an understanding of women’s right to participate in all aspects of cultural life on an equal basis as inclusive of the right to actively engage in identifying and interpreting their cultural heritage and deciding which cultural traditions, values or practices are to be kept, modified or discarded.
- Continue to articulate the ways in which religious fundamentalisms are used to justify discrimination against women and girls under CEDAW and consider incorporating the Committee’s ongoing and expanding analysis into a new General Recommendation that focuses on this issue, in order to further visibilize these forms of discrimination, highlight the importance of State accountability in preventing and addressing such violations to prevent violent extremism, and support more effective mechanisms to hold state accountable for related violations. As a first step, the Committee could consider issuing a statement on the use of religion and culture to justify discrimination against women and girls.