The Role of Religion and Culture in the Implementation of UN Millennium Development Goals and Women’s Empowerment

One of the sessions I attended at the UN Commission on the Status of Women explored the role of religion and culture in the implementation of the UN Millennium Development Goals, especially the goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000, following the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration. All 189 United Nations member states at the time and at least 23 international organizations committed to help achieve these Millennium Development Goals by 2015:

   1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
   2. To achieve universal primary education
   3. To promote gender equality and empowering women
   4. To reduce child mortality rates
   5. To improve maternal health
   6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
   7. To ensure environmental sustainability
   8. To develop a global partnership for development

This session on the role of religion and culture focused on the third goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women, but the panelists and others who joined the discussion agreed on the intersection of the eight goals. They agreed that gender equality is vital to achieving the other seven goals.

This session especially captured my attention because of its emphasis on the role of religion and culture in women’s rights. Do religion and culture contribute to the oppression or the empowerment of women? I would answer “both” to this question, and that seemed to be the consensus of participants in this UN session. Most agreed that religions contribute to women’s oppression by failure to include women’s voices, by not giving them equal opportunities for leadership, and by sanctioning inequality through interpretations of their holy books. I was also struck by the commonality of women from Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and other traditions in finding empowerment through gleaning from their holy books those passages that support women’s rights.

Dr. Abeer Hassoun, pediatric endocrinologist and professor at Columbia University Medical Center

Abeer Hassoun, M.D., pediatric endocrinologist and professor at Columbia University Medical Center, was one of the panelists; she stressed the universality of women’s challenges:“Our problems are universal, whether we are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, black, brown, white. The roles that men and women play in society are not biologically determined; they are socially determined, changeable, and changing. Although they may be justified as required by culture or religion, these roles vary widely by locality and change over time.”

In her powerful presentation, Dr. Hassoun detailed challenges women face around the world. “Despite many international agreements affirming their human rights, women are still much more likely than men to be poor and illiterate, she stated. “They usually have less access than men to medical care, property ownership, credit, training, and employment. They are far less likely than men to be politically active and far more likely to be victims of domestic violence. Discrimination against women and girls—including gender-based violence, economic discrimination, reproductive health inequities, and harmful traditional practices—remains the most pervasive and persistent form of inequality.”

Dr. Abeer Hassoun, speaking at UN Commission on the Status of Women Event

The other panelists and respondents agreed with Dr. Hassoun that educational and economic empowerment are essential to women’s equality. Religion and culture often play a role in limiting educational opportunities for females. About two thirds of the illiterate adults in the world are female. Educational inequities result in economic injustice; 70% of the poor in the world are women. Religious regulations and practices governing work and family life often contribute to these economic inequities. As women’s economic opportunities increase, they achieve greater self-reliance and lift not only themselves but their whole families and communities out of poverty.

Participants also agreed that the right to reproductive health is another key to women’s empowerment and that religion and culture often contribute to limiting this right. Millions of women worldwide do not have access to contraception, only half of women in developing nations receive the recommended minimum of antenatal care visits, millions of babies are delivered without skilled care, and adolescent childbearing remains at high levels in many regions. “The ability of women to control their own fertility  is absolutely fundamental to women’s empowerment and equality,” said Dr. Hassoun. “When a woman can plan her family, she can plan the rest of her life.”

This UN session also focused on women’s political empowerment and their role in the stewardship of natural resources. Several speakers indicated that some countries, like Iraq, have women’s rights in their constitutions, but these articles are not fully applied. An Iraqi man stated, “We can’t just leave articles on women’s rights on paper, but we have to put these articles into practice. I do believe that more Iraqi women will take leading political roles in the next fifteen years.” Dr. Hassoun pointed out that “as of January 2013 the average share of women members of parliaments worldwide was just over 20%.” The US is a little under this worldwide average with women comprising only 18.5% of Congress. Environmental sustainability is another of the Millennium Development Goals, and women play a big role in its accomplishment. “Women in developing nations are usually in charge of securing water, food, and fuel and of overseeing family health and diet,” said Dr. Hassoun. “Therefore, they put into immediate practice what they learn about nutrition and preserving the environment and natural resources.”

Rwandan Survivor

One of the most poignant moments in this session was after the presentations during the question and answer time when a woman from Rwanda stood and told a little of her story. Her voice breaking, she told of losing her mother and her whole family in the horrible genocide. She alone in her family survived. Dr. Hassoun, with deep compassion in her voice, responded to this women, “You’re a survivor like every women is.”

Stories I heard throughout the week in New York City impressed me with the great strength and resilience of women not only to survive but also to thrive in the midst of overwhelming challenges. I was inspired to learn of so many ways that women join together for their empowerment and the improvement of their families and communities. Although their religions and cultures may repress them, they find power both within and outside their traditions. Dr. Hassoun, for example, finds empowerment in her Muslim faith. She separates religion and culture, saying that “many of the practices against women attributed to religion are in fact due to culture.” She gives examples of the difference in the status of women in the Kurdish and Arabic parts of Iraq, and the difference in the status of women in Iran and Pakistan; “although they have the same religion, their practices vary widely.”

Dr. Hassoun concluded her presentation with these quotes:

“I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.” Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women

 “Humankind is made up of two sexes, women and men. Is it possible for humankind to grow by the improvement of one part while the other part is ignored? Is it possible that if half of a mass is tied to the earth with chains that the other half can soar to the sky?” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the republic of Turkey

This session on religion and culture, along with the whole week at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, reconfirmed for me Hillary’s Clinton’s powerful statements at the Beijing World Conference on Women: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” Dr. Hassoun elaborated on this truth: “Women’s empowerment is vital to sustainable development and the realization of human rights for all. Empowered women contribute to the health and productivity of whole families and communities and to improved prospects for the next generation.”


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