By Azra Abdul Cader, Senior Programme Officer, ARROW (@Azra_tweets)
Achieving sustainable development has to involve comprehensively addressing and ensuring universal access[i] [ii] to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)[iii] in its totality. The benefits include healthier, more productive and longer lives, education opportunities for girls, economic gains for the household, community and country, and dealing with major diseases. The link between SRHR and gender equality is undeniable as inequality and power over women, their bodies, lives, freedom and sexuality endangers health throughout the lifecycle. Ensuring these rights together with women’s empowerment will in turn ensure a world that is just, equitable and inclusive. Religion, including the use of extreme interpretations and ideologies of fundamentalism and extremism, influences how women and girls’ SRHR as well as a range of other rights that ensure their wellbeing. The inability to ensure these rights would affect the achievement of the SDGs, not only in terms of specific goals but in its totality. Narrow interpretations of religion, as is illustrated in this blog post, can be used to perpetuate inequality and will leave some people behind in the development process.
These refer to concepts, ideologies and related practice that manipulate religious texts and beliefs in order to gain control, where religion is used to legitimise the divine and thereby render it unchangeable. Rigid interpretations of religion are forced on people through coercion, laws, intolerance and violence. They are seen in personal and public spaces, thereby influencing all aspects of life and wellbeing. It is accompanied by non-fluid definitions of culture, religion, nationalism, ethnicity or sect, which move citizens into exclusionary, patriarchal and intolerant communities.
Religious fundamentalism and extremisms use definitions and interpretations of religion that are usually presented by a religious authority and as such cannot be questioned by people, especially women and girls. People are seen as followers of rulings and judgments derived from religious texts rather than deciders and decision makers based on their own reading and interpretation of the sacred texts. These ideologies are political in thought, aims and action[iv] and they are used by stakeholders including politicians, political parties, religious leaders and state and religious institutions to legitimise authoritarian rule and implement narrow policies; where the sacred texts are used selectively in order to justify oppressive and discriminatory practices that deny services and rights.[v] [vi] [vii]
Many governments in the study regions affiliate themselves with state religions, to establish a counter discourse and identity to both Westernisation and Islamisation – for example Buddhism in Myanmar and Hinduism in India. Religion is also used as a source of marginalisation of certain segments of the population on the grounds of being inferior to the majority. This is done by governments on power and other groups that have the support of the State or ruling parties, which I turn gives them more legitimacy. Women’s bodies are used as a source of upholding the values of a religion and to ensure the continuity of a race, to abolish threats to the wellbeing of a race by another religious group, etc. Constitutional guarantees to protect one religion are increasingly used to limit rights of minorities and to justify mariginaisation on various fronts.
Even when countries claim to be secular, there is no actual separation of “church” and state, and many countries have a dominant religion that has worked its way into the state machinery, the constitution, into policies and practices; moving beyond the personal realm to the public. This is also dependent on the governments and political parties that are in power and on who controls decisions around access to services, allocation of resources, etc. As such, protecting the religion and religious interests end up taking precedence over ensuring equitable access to services and when it comes to ensuring women’s empowerment and access to SRH services, their choices become limited.
Extremist narratives are also gaining ground due to rising economic and political inequalities, and ethnic and communal tensions within and between nations, while extremist ideologies appear to be gaining traction for lack of audible and organized counter narratives at the national, regional and international levels.
Knowledge of and access to RH services, such as contraception and safe abortion services, are controlled by religious justifications, practices and narrow interpretation of the texts. These views influence discourses on service provision and laws and policies, thereby leaving out some groups – young people, single mothers, and victims of sexual violence.
Interpretations of religion that forbid and penalise those, especially women, who engage in pre-marital sex, have been used to develop laws against the practice as well as used to rationalise stigmatisation within the family. The low position of women in society, the lack of accountability of men as a result of their patriarchal position in society, the State and family negligence towards women who make unconventional choices, the value placed on virginity, the control of a woman’s body by the state and family, and lack of bodily integrity for women, have to all be examined from the religious perspective and in terms of factors that enable these narrow views to influence policies and practices.
In Maldives, Morocco and Pakistan, any reference to contraception and family planning is framed within the context of marriage. Availability, accessibility and use of contraception are influenced by people’s interpretations of the religious text and the decision-making power between a couple and sometimes even other members of family, which in turn are influenced by their positions within a family or formal institutions. Since premarital sex is considered to be prohibited in Islam, it is seen as justified to prevent access of services such as contraception to those who are not married, especially to young people, on the grounds that they will not need it due to the requirement of abstinence. This is a primary justification for denying young people RH services, including contraception and access to safe abortion services in these countries.
In the Philippines, similar challenges can be seen in relation to the design and implementation of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law that was passed in 2012. Legislators quoted the Bible to explain their opposition, while others reported being summoned by their local bishops who threatened that priests would name them in their Sunday sermons. Some pro-life organisations filed lawsuits with the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the law. The Supreme Court eventually declared that the Law was not unconstitutional albeit with changes.[ix]
Religious scholars and leaders are considered as an authority in relation to acceptable forms of contraception, provision of services and target populations, despite being from various schools of thought and not having a single viewpoint or position. The role of religious leaders in ensuring service provision and decisions regarding access to RH services is a double edged sword – they can encourage it or deny it through their messaging and influence within the community. This also is proof that there is no single message that is derived from sacred texts resulting in several interpretations.
In Pakistan, religious scholars endorse family planning practices, with some contention over which forms are acceptable and which reasons for practicing family planning are acceptable within different interpretations of Islamic texts. There is also evidence that resistance to ideologies and service provision of family planning has emerged from local-level religious clerics, as well as national (religious) political parties. In the Maldives, religious scholars do not seem to value reasons presented by women (to delay childbirth). Their advice is influenced by personal beliefs and literal and incomplete interpretation of Islamic texts.
The focus of laws and practices is largely so they act as preventive mechanisms – by causing the fear of being stigmatized, prioritising certain forms of behavior as acceptable, and using the threat of punishment. This signifies the wide gap between a rights-based approach and an approach that instills fear. The rights of people, especially those of women and girls, are secondary to notions of acceptable practices that have to prevail according to religious practice, narratives and interpretation.
In Morocco, legal restrictions on abortion make it accessible only when a mother’s life is in danger. A recent call by the King has opened up the space for debate and revision to existing law to include abortion in the case of rape, incest and foetal malformation. Declining numbers of young people opting for marriage and increasing number of them being sexually active is expected to influence abortion rates. Sex outside of marriage is illegal and being a single mother who is unmarried carries social stigma, discrimination and a denial of civic rights to offspring.
Young people’s access to CSE is not considered holistically. Decision makers and community stakeholders have varying ideas of contents and programming. This is influenced by religious perspectives and teachings focused on acceptable behaviour, need for cultural and religious preservation, control over young people and the limited skills and narrow mindsets of teachers to pass on this information. There is a need for perception change, including at the community level.
In India, the research shows that students, parents and teachers do support CSE, but further investigation is needed into whether this would entail CSE as advocated by UNESCO given perceptions of rights of young people, acceptable forms of interaction between them and the space for them to make choices. There are strong perceptions against sex before marriage citing morality, especially for young women. Marriages of choice that involve choosing partners from other communities or castes are considered unacceptable social behaviour.
In Bangladesh, the development of the CSE school curricular, including the nature of content are controlled by policy makes and as a result the content is shaped by these actors and only selected information, considered acceptable by religious and cultural beliefs and practices, is included. Teacher perceptions, which are also influenced by their religious beliefs, influence the teaching technique and limited focus on teacher capacities to deliver such programme adds further challenges to effecting delivery of CSE to young people in schools.
Capturing the lived experiences of how religion affects women’s lives and SRHR is important as it provides an evidence base. Without these voices and experiences the decision making and influence will remain in the hands of selected few. This also recognises that the effects of narrow interpretations of religion are more widespread than in conflict/violent contexts and are prevalent in perceived ‘safe and secular’ spaces.
Creating the debate and discourse is important by raising the issues at key spaces within the UN and within civil society as the conversations are not taking place sufficiently. There is a need for more voices and sustained engagement as well as resources.
Development and inclusion of counter narratives including progressive interpretations and making information available so that women and girls can be empowered.