On 31 October 2013, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, reported to the UN General Assembly that “harmful practices inflicted on women or girls can never be justified in the name of freedom of religion or belief.” You can read the report in its entirety here, while we will highlight a few of the general observations in the report below:

While allowing for a possible lack of “practical synergy” between the human rights of women and the human right to freedom of religion or belief, the report states, “…human rights norms must be interpreted in such a way that they are not corrosive of one another but rather  reinforce each other. Upholding a holistic human rights approach has direct consequences for human rights practice, in particular for those numerous persons who are exposed to combined forms of vulnerability in the intersection of different human rights norms.”

Going further, Mr. Bielefeldt also writes, “Freedom of religion or belief, in conjunction with freedom of expression, helps open up religious traditions to systematic questions and debates. In discourses on religious issues everyone should have a voice and a chance to be heard, from adherents of conservative or traditional interpretations to liberal critics or reform theologians. However, by also empowering groups who traditionally experience discrimination, including women and girls, freedom of religion or belief can serve as a normative reference point for questioning patriarchal tendencies as they exist in different religious traditions. This can lead to more gender-sensitive readings of religious texts and far-reaching discoveries in this field. In virtually all traditions one can indeed find persons or groups who make use of their freedom of religion or belief as a positive resource for the promotion of equality between men and women, often in conjunction with innovative interpretations of religious sources and traditions. This accounts for the possibility of direct synergies between freedom of religion or belief on the one hand and policies for promoting the equal rights of women on the other. Impressive examples of initiatives undertaken by women and men of different religious persuasions clearly show that synergetic efforts in this regard actually exist and should not be underestimated.”

Although such “synergetic efforts” are clearly possible, Mr. Bielefeldt also notes with concern that “such harmful practices as female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour killings, enforced ritual prostitution or denying girls their rights to education are defended in the name of religious traditions.”

As noted, the highlighted portions above only cover the report’s first section of general observations. We highly encourage you to review the report in detail, including Mr. Bielefeldt’s practical recommendations at the conclusion of the report.