Preparations for the upcoming United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) are well underway. Earlier this month, the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women convened an Expert Group Meeting on the priority theme for 2009.

The 2009 CSW will consider the theme “Equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including caregiving in the context of HIV/AIDS.” This theme was explored with shared research and practical experience, resulting in background papers, expert papers and an online discussion amongst civil society.

In particular, I highlight the role of faith based communities that arose in the papers and online discussions. Of nine expert papers and four background papers, only one background paper mentioned the role of religious stakeholders. This reference was specifically related to address issues of “attitudes and stereotypes” regarding gender roles in society.

I think this is an important omission for Ecumenical Women to recognize, reflect and act upon. My last posting referred to the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Decade in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998). One of the goals of this Decade was to “enable the Churches to free themselves from racism, sexism and classism; from teachings and practices that discriminate against women.”

These ‘teachings and practices that discriminate against women’ have since been integrated into many church bodies’ plans of action in the realm of HIV and AIDS, including one laid forth during the 2001 Global consultation on ecumenical responses to the challenges of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

In this 2001 plan, many of the goals related to gender are directly related to the need to “challenge traditional gender roles and power relations within our churches and church institutions which have contributed to the disempowerment of women, and consequently to the spread of HIV [and] AIDS.” We see this as a beginning point in our ecumenical dialogues and a direct reflection on conscious engagement with the goals set forth during the Decade.

Building on that in 2004, churches in Latin America shared a statement on “Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS” which highlighted the unfair burden of care placed on women and girls, sought forgiveness and committed to changing the situation.

Recognizing the role of women in caregiving, the statement affirms that “contrary to the statistics, women and girls have been at the bedsides of many patients in a brave testimony of solidarity and standing up to fear and to cultural, social and religious prejudice.” In reading further, concrete recommendations are made in this regard. “According to our commitment to bear witness to and denounce poverty and social inequality, and to evangelize for a just world, we propose:

  • Highlighting the magnitude and the implications of unpaid care work carried out by women.
  • Encouraging governments and policy makers at the national and international level, communities and families recognize the urgent need to increase and extend social protection and remuneration for community and home based careers.
  • Promoting changes in the gendered division of domestic tasks and achieving a balance of caring responsibilities.

These two examples demonstrate work churches have undertaken not only to overcome a legacy of stigma and discrimination but also to recognize the impact of HIV and AIDS on women and girls as well as their prophetic leadership and solidarity with people living with HIV as caregivers. However, the fact that faith based organizations are hardly recognized as partners means that we still have much work ahead of us.