Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are crucial for young girls and women to be able to control their bodies, access health services and realise their full potential. SRHR is not just the right to health but is fundamentally interlinked with several human rights like the rights to education, work and equality, as well as the rights to life, privacy and freedom from torture, bodily integrity and autonomy.
However, women’s SRHR are affected not only by poverty, systemic inequalities and inequities, lack of access to opportunities and resources, poor governance, education but also by religion, especially when the State and other groups misuse religion for political power and to exert control over people.
Strict patriarchal interpretations of religious texts limit human rights, especially women’s SRHR, perpetuate patriarchy and result in discrimination. Most often, interpretations of religion put forth an underlying assumption that women and men are not equal. Religion is interpreted to form views on women, their role in society, on how women should act and behave and to regulate women’s conduct or bodies in order to ‘guard their honour’ and that of the family.
Religious rights ideologies use discourses of religion and culture to maintain and extend power over the public and private domains. Religious fundamentalists impose their worldviews and apply religious law to all aspects of life.
“Religious fundamentalisms and extremisms” have regressive connotations and is often used in relation to Islamic militancy activities, Protestant ideology, anti-Americanism and fanaticism. Our use of the term does not signify one religion, but illustrates how the political (mis)use of religion may limit rights, including SRHR, of young girls, women and marginalised groups.
This edition of ‘Our Stories Ourselves: Women Speak Out About Religion and Rights’ is an effort by the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) in collaboration with seven of its partners from Asia, Latin America and Middle East and North Africa to share a collection of heart-rendering, brave and inspiring personal stories written by women from different communities
Religion, traditional practices, cultural values and beliefs have been historically cited time and again by religious leaders, politicians and society to limit rights and oppose equality for women. For instance, the presence of deep-rooted religious and cultural beliefs and patriarchal power structures is evident in Nepal, where antiquated Hindu customs like the recently criminalised Chaupadhi – a practice of isolating menstruating girls and women to sheds – or excluding women from inheritance, continue to prevail.
Whilst strong Catholic and conservative beliefs dictate the legal framework in several Latin American countries and restrict access to abortion, religion and family beliefs are used to justify female genital mutilation (FGM) and infringement of bodily integrity in the Middle East and North African region. In 2010, Human Rights Watch found that due to the restrictions on legal abortions in Argentina a staggering half a million abortions were taking place clandestinely every year, meaning that women were forced to turn to unsafe methods.
Everyday these women, and many others like them around the world, continue to be violently repressed but they still attempt to stand up to fight for their rights
The impact of rising religious fundamentalism on women’s rights across the globe has been a worrying trend. Extremist ideologies thrive on asserting control over women’s bodies, autonomy, sexuality and their daily lives. This confluence, of conservative religious, cultural and customary practices is not confined to any one religion or region and is often interlinked with the pursuit of power. Political groups aspire for homogeneity based on ethnicity, race and religion to fuel a false sense of ethno-nationalism, patriotism and support for fundamentalist and right-wing policies.
Political support for such xenophobic rhetoric the saffron brigade in India or the onslaught on the Rohingyas in Myanmar – is rooted in poverty, unemployment, lack of basic rights and disillusion with consecutive political regimes that have failed to genuinely uplift people, fulfil their basic rights and ensure their upward mobility. Poverty has a devastating impact on communities, especially on young girls and women living in rural areas. In remote parts of Indonesia, girls are young as 10 years old are married to older men in exchange for money so the girl’s family can escape poverty momentarily.
It is not uncommon for girls and women from marginalised and rural societies or from deeply religious communities to become pawns to these archaic and undemocratic views and have little say in reproductive and sexuality-related issues.
This is despite the fact that women are contributing equally to the society by managing homes, leading communities to spearhead change or making ends meet by toiling in farms, running small businesses, working as domestic workers or even taking up commercial sex work so they can raise a child, feed a family or support the community. Instead of providing the necessary support and cheering on their endeavours, women remain ignored, unprotected, sidelined and rendered invisible by their families, society, politicians and lawmakers.
This journal follows the lives of ten resilient and courageous women from Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Morocco, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia as they recount how they escaped FGM, fought for abortion rights for their minor daughters, how they underwent unsafe abortions despite laws criminalising them or decided to raise children in spite of being victims of rape.
They also narrate with fortitude how they were married off as children and had their dreams shattered but refused to bow down to overbearing male-dominated customs in a Hindu-majority country or how they bravely shunned polygamy as Muslim women and adopted children despite the fear of facing the wrath of their community and religious leaders. All these narrations have a common thread – how religion has been used by a partner or a parent or society to violate their rights.
Everyday these women, and many others like them around the world, continue to be violently repressed but they still attempt to stand up to fight for their rights. While these inspirational anecdotes are meant to motivate, they are also a grim reminder of the human cost of denying women their rights. They are a strong testimony to the fact that improved sexual and reproductive health is a key pillar of the overall health, empowerment, and human rights of individuals and of the sustainable and equitable development of societies.
To enable realisation of SRHR, let us continue to hold our governments, lawmakers, politicians, communities and other stakeholders accountable so they genuinely protect and uphold the rights of all girls and women around the world and ensure SRHR remains at the heart of the 2030 Development Agenda. Let us come together so our young girls and women are not married before their prime, do not have their genitals mutilated and are protected from sexual violence, have the choice to abort or raise a child and enjoy autonomy over their bodies.