Justice, dignity and hope 

The “Theatre of the Oppressed” was one of the methodologies practiced to collect information on community level. Participants clearly enjoyed the session, despite the serious topic. Photo: LWF/ S. Gallay

Women’s human rights advocacy training for faith-based organizations 

(LWI) “It’s about justice, dignity and hope for these women,” Sophia Marcia Reyes concludes. The young woman works for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Honduras and has just participated in an LWF workshop on human rights for women.  

Together with 39 women from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, they learned about the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), discussed the human rights situation of women in and across their regions, and practiced advocacy tools to collect data and compile reports for the United Nations. 

“In our region, we are very concerned about the situation of female human rights defenders,” Reyes says. Often connected to land rights issues, human rights defenders in Latin America are under pressure from state and non-state actors alike.  

For women, speaking out against injustice is especially dangerous. “Women defenders face the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence,” says Cristina Rendón, LWF program assistant for Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment.  

“Many are perceived as individuals who challenge traditional values and their leadership may be perceived as questioning gender roles in the society, especially when they focus on gender justice-related rights. Violence and threats against their families is often used to discourage them to pursue their claims.” In some contexts, they suffer exclusion and ostracism from their male counterparts as well, Rendón adds. 

Tools to raise awareness 

The training provided not only the exact know-how and information on how to document abuses and form local coalitions to better protect those women. Reyes, and her colleague Diana Torres from the LWF Country Program in Colombia also made contacts with human rights experts at the UN, who work on the situation in Latin America and would be able to use that information in the Human Rights Council. “We now have an opportunity as a region to bring the information, analyze it, form an alliance and change lives,” Reyes says. 

Violence and discrimination against women still are an issue on all continents, even if the country has laws meant to ensure equality. Women from Northern Europe talked about feeling unsafe when walking alone at night, a Latin American participant related general discrimination against women in job interviews. In a role-play session, issues of inheritance, property and reproductive rights came up, but also domestic violence and disadvantages for women in poor families. 

During the workshop, the participants learned to collect these testimonies into reports for the CEDAW review of their countries. “We intentionally select participants from countries whose reviews are coming up,” says Rev. Judith Van Osdol, LWF Program Executive for Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment. “This way, we give them the means to prepare their reports.” 

Faith-based partners 

Besides learning about the UN system and the tools and techniques applied, participants also discussed on how to relate to religious leaders, authorities and other civil society actors, as they could be valuable allies – or hindrances, as LWF Program Assistant for gender justice and empowerment, Rendón explained. “Violence against women often happens in the family context,” she said, “and family matters very often pass through the churches. Even marriage and inheritance in many countries are an exclusively religious affair.”  

Churches therefore can play a crucial role when it comes to empowering women. Christine Löw, Director of the Liaison Office of UN Women in Geneva, listed populist and conservative religious circles also as one of the big obstacles to women’s empowerment. “Some push-backs are faith based. We have to be very clear on which faith voice we bring to the table,” said Christine Mangale, Program Director in the Lutheran Office for World Community in New York. “We have to stay strong and be very clear when people are using and abusing religion.” 

New role models 

The training also prepares the ground in a more personal way. In sharing sessions, male participants shared how they struggle to find new role models in their contexts, where fatherhood and masculinity is still often associated with authoritarianism and even violence. 

Abdiaziz Mohamed Hassan, working for FinnChurchAid, was one of the few male participants. His home country, Somalia, belongs to those who have not yet ratified CEDAW. Part of his objective was to learn more about the topic and look into possible alliances for a report and stronger advocacy for women’s rights. He also took away some personal learnings. “Our society is very traditional; previously, we thought that we men are solely responsible at home. Now we understand that the family is more a shared project.”