Religions and women’s rights: Principled engagement and mutual accountability

16 March 2022

Opening remarks by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at a side event on “Religions and Women’s Rights: Principled Engagement and Mutual Accountability” during the sixty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women.


Distinguished Delegates,

Dear friends,    

Saludos! I’m happy to be with you and thank our hosts for bringing us together. 

My hope is that we shall find the energy and synergies to join forces to advance rights and choices for women and girls, everywhere.

Over the centuries as now, in times of crisis faith is a source of inspiration and guidance. 

Religious institutions and houses of worship reinvigorate shared values: hope, respect, mutual assistance. So too today, as societies face up to war, conflict, rampant inequalities and the trampling of human rights, faith is a solace to help communities find strength to cope with injustices and courage to right the wrongs.

Standing the midst of a sea of cot beds at a refugee centre in Moldova just last week, I heard devastating testimonies from women with children, some heavily pregnant – who were forced to hastily abandon their cities and their former lives, fleeing from danger. 

Often our UNFPA humanitarian work shows us the most generous and kindest people aren’t necessarily the wealthiest or most powerful. I saw the compassion and kinship of Moldovans, welcoming Ukrainian women and girls in their time of dire need. 

UNFPA is desperately attempting to cater to pregnant women in Ukraine, some delivering babies underground, without proper assistance. Shockingly, women and newborns died in military strikes against maternity hospital facilities. Women’s right to a safe pregnancy and dignified birth must be respected. Conflict cannot be a justification otherwise. 

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately we see rolling back of hard-won progress and human rights gains. It’s women and girls, older people and others already marginalized, who are bearing the worst of it. 
We see rising levels of violence, growing division within communities and the rhetoric of populist nationalism back in the mainstream, in quite a volatile geopolitical landscape.

Very worrisomely, we also witness the dangers of religions instrumentalized, sometimes used as a platform for misinformation and disinformation, religious and cultural arguments pitted against progress for women — and becoming part of the pushback on full gender equality. 

Let us never forget that the costs of rights and choices denied are enormous — deleterious for families and societies and devastating for an individual woman or girl.

A girl like Mamusa in Sierra Leone, eager for education but without money for school fees. Her “boyfriend” – a much older man she met while still just a child – offered help. That help was short-lived. He dropped her after impregnating her, at age 14.

Stories like Mamusa’s are as common as they are tragic – a girl’s life turned upside down due to ignorance about her body and her rights. A girl betrayed, denied the support and protection she needs to stay in school and live free from coercion and exploitation. If she becomes pregnant? Rejected. Shamed. The stigma attaches to her, not the man who exploited her. 

Comprehensive sexuality education, provided in age appropriate and culturally sensitive ways, is her best hope, a type of education still contested in many quarters. Yet how can we deny girls information that protects them, and turn around and blame them for the inevitable outcome? Where’s the mutual accountability there?

Faith actors – you are powerful allies in our quest to end gender-based violence, and stop harmful practices like underage marriage and female genital mutilation. Yet, you can do a lot more — help reshape views, shift social and gender norms, and encourage sustained behavioral change.

For example, starting in Niger and now across West Africa, UNFPA runs ‘Écoles des Maris’ – husbands’ schools that foster behaviour change. We constructively engage men and boys. The cultural and religious entities are involved, changing attitudes about the inherent value of a girl, promoting adult rather than child marriages and explaining the health and social benefits of spaced pregnancies. In these communities, girls and boys acquire life skills and shared values of mutual respect, and ready themselves to interrupt violence and to participate in gainful employment and in community life.

In mountainous Bhutan, UNFPA partners with monks and nuns, who in their duty and compassion, break down barriers to comprehensive sexuality education, counsel men against gender-based violence, and disseminate useful information to rural women regarding menstrual hygiene, family planning and reproductive health.
In Uganda, religious leaders have stepped forward with commitments to address adolescent pregnancy, which sharply increased as girls were out of school because of Covid-19. 

Through words and actions, religious leaders must use their moral authority to encourage parents and adolescents to engage in healthy, open dialogues about human sexuality and their responsibilities and common values.

That is why UNFPA’s new strategic plan calls for strong partnerships with faith-based organizations, religious institutions and traditional leaders, in the 150-plus locations where we’re hard at work, to bring sexual and reproductive health and human rights to women in villages and communities. These partnerships work!

We count on you – our very important partners – to use your voice and platforms. Lead awareness campaigns and support the media to challenge sexist, discriminatory or racist stereotypes. Let the judiciary and law enforcement officials know where you stand on action to protect woman’s rights. Counsel your associations to ensure progress for women and girls keeps moving forward — not backwards. 

Dear friends,

The numbers speak for themselves. Today 800 women will die from pregnancy and childbirth — as the joy and promise of new life ends in tragedy instead. 

Every 11 minutes, a woman’s life is annihilated by GBV — most often at the hands of an intimate partner. 

Together, let’s challenge the notion that there is somehow a conflict between faith and human rights, women’s rights. The loud and insistent voices of religious authorities, and especially men leaders, are needed now to put a decisive end to gender-based violence at long last. It must never be excused or downplayed as a family matter. It is immoral. It must stop, and that takes all of us speaking up and calling it out. 

The UN Secretary-General’s SDGs accelerator, Our Common Agenda, asks civil society and faith partners to promote multi-stakeholder and intergovernmental conversations. 

I join him to urge faith and religious partners to reclaim the multilateral arena as a space for dialogue. Let’s do the hard work to re-energize our common frameworks, to stop the regression, repression and misinformation, and to make the world less cruel, more safe for women — and for girls navigating their adolescence, like Mamusa.

Dear friends, 

We arrive at a moment of truth. With everything happening in our troubled world today, Peace is the best and indeed the only answer. We expect the faithful will rise to that moment, as adherents of shared principles: justice, mercy, fairness and compassion. 

Whatever our faith, whatever our cultural background, let us stride into the light, asserting that:

No woman should die giving birth.  

A girl must be given the protection, nurturance and information she needs from her family and community, and never be forced to marry too young, or bear a child while she herself is a child.

There should be Peace — in the world and in the home. No one should be subjected to the indignity of gender-based violence or harmful practices like female genital mutilation. 

And no responsible faith leader should stand aside, unwilling to take action.

Women and girls’ lives, changed for the better. 

I thank you for your prayers for Peace, and renewal of efforts to make gender equality a reality in a world that desperately needs this. 


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