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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.

syria-womenEver since I heard UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speak so eloquently on the need for women’s political participation in peacebuilding two weeks ago at a ‘Peacebuilding Commission High-Level Ministerial Event,’ I felt inspired to dig a bit deeper past the headlines coming out of Syria in order to begin learning a bit more about the role of women in the Syrian armed conflict. Ever since the UN Security Council unanimously adopted its landmark Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000, the international community has repeatedly affirmed that women play an essential role in peacebuilding, conflict resolution and conflict prevention. For instance, as Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka pointed out in her address, “women’s political participation is associated with lower levels of corruption, more inclusive decision-making, greater investment in social services, job creation for women, and family welfare,” all factors that lead to a more peaceful society. Furthermore, while correlation does not necessarily prove causation, there is a “statistically significant relationship between female representation in government and peace,” as you can read about here.

However, well over a decade after the adoption of Resolution 1325, rates of women’s political participation in formal peacebuilding negotiations remain extremely low. As an August 2010 report released by UN Women indicates, a “reasonably representative sample of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 reveals that only 4 percent of signatories, 2.4 percent of chief mediators, 3.7 percent of witnesses and 9 percent of negotiators are women.” Women have specific concerns in peace negotiations, such as a need for gender training on all levels of armed forces, the elimination of sexual violence, and the protection of women refugees and internally displaced persons, yet these concerns are rarely addressed in final peace accords. As discussed in this video from IREX, violence against girls and women, especially sexual violence, has become widespread in the Syrian armed conflict, and thus it will be especially important that women are represented in any future peace negotiations in order to increase the likelihood that women’s issues are properly addressed. For more information on sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian armed conflict, as well as other issues, you can read this report from Human Rights Watch and this report from International Rescue Committee.

While we need to raise awareness about sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian armed conflict, women are playing many leadership roles as well, both officially and unofficially. As discussed in the video from IREX linked to above, women are leaders of protests, civil society organizations and occasionally serve in the Free Syrian Army, although they are increasingly being marginalized as extremist groups to continue to gain power in the opposition. The work of women to protect other women and girls in refugee camps was also mentioned.

Finally, we would like to lift up three women working providing leadership in Syrian armed conflict, all with different approaches. Although currently in exile, Suheir Atassi is a co-vice-president in the Syrian opposition and is one of the movement’s leading secular activists. Razan Zaitouneh is a Syrian writing and human rights lawyer who still remains in the country, working to document human rights abuses. Finally, the young Yaman Al Qadri is a peace activist who was detained and tortured by Syrian police in 2011. She eventually fled to Canada after being released, and has recently toured in a play called “Let’s Talk” about the complex issues Syrians have about the uprising. To hear more from these three amazing women, check out the videos below.

Earlier this month the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a follow-up publication to its first statistical report on female genital mutilation/ cutting (FGM/C) in 2005.  The report in its entirety can be found here: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change.  While concentrated across a wide swath of African and (to a lesser extent) Middle Eastern countries, FGM/C takes place in a variety of forms for a variety of reasons around the world.  In some countries such as Guinea, Mali and Somalia, well over 90% of girls and women of reproductive age have undergone the practice, according to the report.

In many countries, especially in rural areas, FGM/C is performed by traditional practitioners (primarily older women), but in some countries like Egypt it is frequently performed by trained health professionals.  In nineteen out of twenty-nine countries where FGM/C is concentrated, the majority of girls and women think it should end.  While often viewed as a manifestation of patriarchal oppression, rates of support for the practice among boys and men in many countries are roughly equal to that of girls and women according to the report.  FGM/C is linked to variety of both short and long-term medical complications such as severe pain, prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and even death.

Ethnic grouping greatly determines why girls and women undergo FGM/C, with some reasons including social acceptance, beauty, preservation of virginity and a perceived association with religious beliefs (although no religious Scripture requires it). While prevalence of FGM/C amongst younger generations of girls and women is decreasing and many countries have outlawed the practice, faith communities have a major role to play in combating this form of violence against girls and women, especially in areas where it is a deeply entrenched social norm.  For instance, some faith communities have removed the cutting aspect from associated rites of passage for young women while retaining the positive aspects of the ceremony overall.

To learn more about female genital mutilation/ cutting and what UNICEF is doing to end the harmful practice, you visit UNICEF’s page on the subject here.

Women_peace_and_security-5d60eThe UN Security Council yesterday held an open debate on sexual violence in conflict to send a strong signal to perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict that their crimes will not be tolerated. The council’s fifteen members unanimously adopted resolution 2106, which can be found here. Resolution 2106 joins other Security Council resolutions 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009) and 1960 (2010) on women peace and security; the pillar resolution being 1325 (2000).

This new resolution particularly emphasizes ending impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence, in stating, “more consistent and rigorous investigation and prosecution of sexual violence crimes as a central aspect of deterrence, and ultimately prevention.” The resolution also stresses that “effective steps to prevent and respond to such acts significantly contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security; and stresses women’s participation as essential to any prevention and protection response…”

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, addressed the council, particularly emphasizing that it is still largely “cost-free” to rape a woman, child or man in conflict.  Actress and activist Angelina Jolie, the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also spoke, observing “That it is a crime to rape young children is not something I imagine anyone in this room would not be able to agree on,” but that the UN Security Council needed to take the lead in creating political will across the globe to end sexual violence.

To check out a full report on Resolution 2106’s passage, click here.

Want to learn more about how Faith-Based Organizations interact with the United Nations?  On Monday, 29 April, 2013 at 6:00p EDT, please tune in to “Our Sacred Journey, ” hosted by Audrey E. Kitagawa for her interview with Dr. Azza Karam, Senior Cultural Advisor to the United Nations Population Fund.  Dr. Karam (see right) has worked with many Ecumenical Women member organizations in the past, and is always an extremely insightful and compelling speaker.  For a link to the online broadcast, click here.  An abstract on the programme follows:

Communities of faith have long played an important role in the implementation of development programs administered by the United Nations and its respective agencies in developing countries. The majority of the world’s peoples are adherents to a faith tradition, so faith-based organizations are important potential partners. Within the past several years, the United Nations has made major shifts in acknowledging partnerships with faith communities which include the creation of the International Recognition of Day of Vesak, the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace, Alliance of Civilizations, and the World Interfaith Harmony Week. Dr. Azza Karam, Senior Cultural Advisor to the United Nations Population Fund, discusses her assessment of the role of faith with the United Nations, and its strengths, as well as challenges.

Raimy Ramirez comes from the Student Christian Movement of Venezuela and is a part of the World Student Christian Federation delegation to the UNCSW57.

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If we are in a crowd and hear a voice that rises above the others, we can think that probably this stronger voice, is a woman´s voice and a Latin American woman´s voice. Our stories, our experiences have made us loud people. We can not afford to speak quietly, because our lives need to be told loudly, because although we do a lot of noise, they are not always heard.

Parallel events of the 57th Commission on the Status of Women at the UN, have helped screams emerge not only from South, but also from East, West, North and Center to be heard. We have gathered women around the world in a place where the voice finds an ear to be heard.  However, are those voices shouting stories and demanding justice, getting to where they should be heard? Do these voices have relevance in the discussions that take place within the “solemn” United Nations compound?

Many… have not.

The challenge  is to empower those spaces where decisions are made, where over the needs of women laws are legislated, where few speak and many suffer. For this reason because even the ears of the people who choose not to be open, we have to keep screaming loud and keep in mind the need to keep walking, because although “the pace is slow, is still underway.”

For this, Nelly del Sid, Honduran women shouts loudly for defending their right to build a country without foreign military. Here is why Magda Lopez , colombian, speaks loudly when she speaks in favor of the right of women to participate in the peace process in Colombia. Here is why Cuban women, speak loudly when sharing with the world that their contribution was essential for the eradication of illiteracy in Cuba. Here is why in El Salvador, young women raise their voices in defense of an environmentally just world. This is why women in Venezuela scream in defense of a process that is sustained and will continue because of the hands of  fighter women.  Here is why a small delegation of young women around the world, identified themselves with a label that says “WSCF” are making so much noise!

by Rochelle Rawls-Shaw

Presbyterians from the United States and Aotearoa New Zealand prepared to lead this morning’s Ecumenical Women (EW)’s worship service at the 57th Session of the Commission for the Status of Women (CSW) for over a month.

As we met and got to know each other on conference calls, we shared our nicknames and their origins; we identified our special talents (or talents we wished we had). We shared what friends or family would say to describe us to a complete stranger. Our conversations were a great beginning for a group of women who were blessed and being used to bless others who would gather together for worship.

IMG_0255The EW worship committee who assigned each organization a scripture passage associated with women in the bible and guidelines for worship services during CSW. We received the story of the woman caught in adultery – John 8:2-11. This story became the focus of our liturgy. Exploring the story, we  began to experience the Divine Momentum leading us.

The momentum built when we were introduced to Pamela Tankersley from Presbyterian Women of Aotearoa New Zealand. She had prepared a liturgy for International Women’s Day (March 8) based on our scripture and in remembrance of the brutal gang rape that occurred in India on December 16, 2012. She entitled the liturgy, “Laying down the Stones.”

The momentum continued to build as planning members suggestions to the liturgy. A prayer of invocation was added to the call to worship and assignments made to the various parts. Our team included talented singers who would lead congregational songs and a soloist who would sing “Safe Within Your Arms.” Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wrote a new hymn for the service: “Christ Would Not Cast the Judgment Stone.”

We planned that the worship service would involve people who were not even present at the Church Center for the United Nations. Planning team members were invited to bring at least 15-20 stones with them to New York. A planning team member from Puerto Rico had members of her congregation bring stones to church that she brought to CSW.

This morning dawned and we made our final plans. We placed larger stones around the communion table and gathered the stones brought by the planning team members into baskets. As worshippers entered the chapel, each received a stone.

There was something about the stones.

A single red candle was lit. The service began. I strongly felt the Divine Presence.

IMG_0403After scripture had been read, songs had been sung, and words had been said, the worshipping community was invited to bring forth their stones and put them down around the table as symbols to remember the violence that our sisters have endured, to express our intention to put aside our complicity in that violence and to renew

Reflecting on the service, Laetitia Wells observed, “As the women brought their various stones to the table, I was moved during worship when I heard the loud sound of the stones hitting the table. Symbolically I felt that WE were taking a definitive STAND against violence against women and girls. Hearing the loud sound of the stones allowed me to think that we were eradicating the horrors that come with violence against women.” Jill Bolander Cohen commented, “This was a deeply spiritual and moving experience. It was really something watching women and men lay down stones which seemed to release something–something that weighed them down.” Jaime Staehle said, “Working together with women from all generations, walks of life, and places in the world was quite meaningful and really helped the theme of the service blossom.”

There was something about the stones–something special about being able to release some things that have burdened us all our lives. The Divine Momentum presented the opportunity for us to release them during our worship here today. Thanks be to God!

Photos by Andrew Nam Chul Osborne

Photo credit: UN Women/Felix Eldridge

Hi everyone, with only 3 days remaining before the 57th Commission on the Status of Women begins on 4 March at United Nations Headquarters in New York, we at Ecumenical Women will be providing you with daily thoughts, video, quotes and prayers that inspire our work.

Today we’re posting a link to a powerful story from Kenya that was recently shared by UN Women.  In the run-up to Kenyan national elections on 4 March, students at the Kinyanjui Road Primary School in Kawangware have been participating in an interactive series of plays addressing domestic violence.  Here’s an excerpt from the story:

As the play unfolds, the 700-strong audience is packed into the school auditorium, some leaning in through doors and windows to catch a glimpse of the play. They are captivated. The children in white and blue uniforms wince in collective unison at the violence being portrayed on the stage before them then cheer together as justice is served.

You can check out the story in it’s entirety here: “As elections approach, school kids cast their vote against violence in Kenya.”  The work done at Kinyanjui Road Primary School provides a great example of how we can build societies where violence against girls and women is not acceptable.

Ecumenical Women will be working throughout CSW57 to support the creation of such societies.  See you soon!

EW Web Logo Click here to view Ecumenical Women’s recommendation document to member state governments at CSW57. Our Advocacy Team has been hard at work to make sure each individual recommendation cites previously agreed upon language in a number of UN resolutions.

We have a big announcement friends!  Ms. Michelle Bachelet, the first Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women has confirmed that she will be joining us for part of our CSW Orientation!  For a full bio on Ms. Bachelet, click here.  She will speak to our group from 12-1230pm and then be present for individual questions and photos until 1pm.

Registration for the EW Orientation closes this Thursday, 14 February, so be sure to click here and register if you haven’t yet done so.

Be sure to check out the following statement Ms. Bachelet released for the 2012 International Day to End Violence Against Women as well:

In order to promote civil society and public participation in a June 2014 thematic report, the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Discrimination against Women has created a survey on discrimination against women in economic and social life, available here.  Survey responses will inform the report, which will specifically focus on women’s economic and social lives during times of economic crisis.  The deadline for contributions is 1 March 2013, so please contribute soon.  Depending on your expertise and experiences, you might want to respond to only some of the questions or some of the sections of the survey. Please be assured that all responses will remain confidential.

The Working Group on Discrimination against Women is a special procedure established by the Human Rights Council in 2010. It has been tasked to identify, promote and exchange views on good practices to eliminate discrimination against women in law and in practice.
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Por primera vez, Mujeres Ecuménicas ha lanzado una versión de su comisión sobre la Condición de la Mujer en la página del evento españolas. Lo puedes ver aquí. EW se compromete a hacer más de nuestro sitio web bilingüe en los próximos meses también. Nos vemos en CSW57!

Check out the video below which features Christine Mangale and Mia Adjali, members of the Ecumenical Women Worship Committee. The video provides a great and concise update of all that we’ve been working on at Ecumenical Women to prepare for CSW57 this past month. We’d love to hear your feedback!

You can check out a live broadcast of today’s UN Security Council open debate on “Women, Peace & Security” here.  Regarding the many peace agreements signed in recent years, less than 8% of the persons negotiating those agreements were women, a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325.  The debate will continue until roughly 1pm, EST.

Check out the new video below from UNiTE, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s multi-year effort aimed at preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls in all parts of the world through social mobilization.  The video features facts and statistics about violence against girls and women and challenges us to think about what would happen if we “flipped the script” on such statistics by encouraging UN Member States to uphold the promises they’ve made in signing the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Beijing Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and other documents.

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