Our Stories Ourselves: Women Speak Out About Religion and Rights

December 21, 2016 shutterstock_124272301-copy

ARROW, along with partners from Asia, Latin America and Middle East and North Africa, will produce a booklet and a podcast as the inaugural installment of ARROW’s storytelling resource Our Stories Ourselves. This edition will share experiences of a group of women in local communities from 10 countries, with a focus on how religion can affect their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).


This resource is coming out at a critical juncture. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) were adopted in September 2015 and while the goals and targets did not include SRHR in its entirety, it is now the collective responsibility of the multistakeholder Global Partnership to ensure that the implementation of sustainable development leaves no one behind and realizes SRHR for all people.

Women’s human rights are affected not only by poverty, food insecurity, lack of political participation, etc. but also by religion, especially when the State and other groups misuse religion, a deeply personal experience for many people, for political power and to exert control over people. While patriarchal interpretations as well as religious fundamentalisms and extremisms can disempower women and girls, women and girls can also use religion as a source of emancipation, empowerment and agency. Our Stories Ourselves: Women Speak Out About Religion and Rights will take cognizance of, and where possible illustrate, these various experiences.

Following are the participating project partners.

Yayasan Kesehatan Perempuan – Indonesia

Naripokkho – Bangladesh

RUWSEC – India

LOOM – Nepal

Ikhtyar – Egypt

Moroccan Family Planning Association – Morocco

Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir/ México – Latin America

Watch this space for more updates as we progress with this project and keep reading if you want to find out more about our theme and format.

Storytelling and Advocacy

ARROW has been working on SRHR and its intersections with other development issues for over two decades and one of the things that brings together the evidence generation and monitoring, advocacy and information and communications strategies of the organization is storytelling. While reinforcing our work and our calls to action with case studies from Asia-Pacific and the Global South, ARROW and partners have also explored ways of showcasing these stories in other ways; a travelling journal[i], documentaries[ii], postcards[iii], etc.

“Stories are powerful. They can cut through prejudice, build understanding and motivate people to challenge injustice. Storytelling can empower individuals and communities by recognizing their experience and expertise and promoting their agency.”[iv] ARROW identifies with this statement and also recognizes the risks and ethical questions that can arise with storytelling whether it is personal risks taken by storytellers, privileging of some voices over others, and legal and professional obligations such as confidentiality. In order to overcome or mitigate these, ARROW will be using a human rights framework as we do with all our work as well as a framework of ethical and effective storytelling as outlined by the Victoria Law Foundation[v]; consent, participation, collaboration, campaign context and crafting the story.

Women’s Rights Campaigning: Info-Activism Toolkit[vi] by the Tactical Technology Collective states “A story is an excellent way to bring the human element back into an issue or cause” and offers various forms of storytelling. For this installment of Our Stories Ourselves will use the methods of testimony and narration and present the stories as a website, booklet and podcast.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR)[vii]

Reproductive Health implies that people are able to have a responsible, satisfying, and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to do so. Implicit in this definition is the right of women and men to be informed of, and to have access to safe, effective, affordable, and acceptable methods of fertility regulation of their choice, and to appropriate healthcare services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth, and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant.

Reproductive Rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognised in national laws, international human rights documents, and other consensus documents. These rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children, to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes their right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence, as expressed in human rights documents.

Sexual Health implies a positive approach to human sexuality. The purpose of sexual healthcare should be the enhancement of life and personal relations, as well as counselling and care related to reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases.

Sexual Rights embrace human rights that are already recognised in national laws, international human rights documents, and other consensus documents. These include the right of all persons, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, to the highest attainable standard of health in relation to sexuality, including access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services; right to seek, receive and impart information in relation to sexuality; right to sexuality education; respect for bodily integrity; choice of partner; right to decide to be sexually active or not; consensual sexual relations; consensual marriage; right to decide whether or not, and when to have children; and right to pursue a satisfying, safe and pleasurable sexual life.

Religion, Religious Fundamentalisms and Extremisms

Strict patriarchal interpretations of religious texts limit human rights, especially women’s SRHR, perpetuate patriarchy and results 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 fundamentalism misuses religion for political power, and selects specific aspects of modernity as going against religious identity and rejecting others. It is associated with conservative authoritarian policies. 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.[viii]

“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 women and marginalized groups.

Ayesha Imam defines religious fundamentalisms as ideologies that exhibit the following features[ix]:

The use of religion, often along with other identity markers, to gain political, social and economic power; the use of the same to justify discrimination, intolerance and violations of human rights
The control of women’s bodies and sexuality as a central avenue of social control
The reinforcement of male authority and rigid, heteronormative, and patriarchal gender relationships
Reference to a specific interpretation and practice of religion as the only truth and only legitimate way of being
The use of coercion and violence to impose this ideology
A communal identity of “us” against all others
“Religious fundamentalisms” are present in every religion, including Christianity (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, etc.), Islam (both Sunni and Shia), Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism.

How Religion Affects SRHR

At the very core, these intersect when a woman or a girl’s ability and agency to decide what to do with her body is denied under the pretext of religious beliefs and cultural and traditional practices. This can manifest in various ways whether it is restrictions or limitations to access to sexual and reproductive health services such as contraception, abortion or restrictions and limitations to access to information such as comprehensive sexuality education or youth-friendly services or violation of sexual rights through discriminatory laws and policies or through violence that is permitted according to religious doctrine such as female genital cutting.

Case Study 01

Influence of the Catholic Church in the Philippines

The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012, also known as the Reproductive Health Law in the Philippines, guarantees universal access to methods of contraception, fertility control, sexuality education, and maternal care and is a means to ensuring women’s rights. Despite this, the passing of the legislation was controversial with both opposition and support by experts, academics, religious institutions and politicians while it was in legislature.

The Law was opposed by the Catholic Church, which has a stronghold on public and moral life, illustrating the limited separation of church and state in the country. Its influence caused continuous delays in passing the law and Supreme Court delays for more than a year. Many advocates of the law fear the law will be useless unless it can be fully implemented and enforced.

Case Study 02

Child Marriage in Indonesia and Malaysia

Child marriage in Malaysia and Indonesia is a practice that is justified by religion and enabled by the Sharia courts and are not viewed within a context of force and coercion. The legal framework in these countries enables this practice to continue. The legal age of marriage in Malaysia is 18 years but for Muslim girls it is 16 years. And those aged below 16 are permitted to marry with the consent of the Sharia Court. In Indonesia the minimum legal age of marriage for girls is 16 with parental consent.

Interested in reading more about these intersections? Here’s a blogpost by Azra Abdul Cader of ARROW.

[i] http://arrow.org.my/publication/rural-womens-traveling-journal-srhr/
[ii] http://arrow.org.my/the-women-of-sarawak-and-mindoro-the-invisible-battle-of-climate-change/
[iii] http://arrow.org.my/womens-stories-from-the-climate-frontlines/
[iv] http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2689990
[v] Ibid.
[vi] https://womensrights.informationactivism.org/en/strategies/digital-storytelling
[vii] Sivananthi Thanenthiran, Sai Jyothirmai Racherla, and Suloshini Jahanath, Reclaiming and Redefining Rights: ICPD+20 Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Asia Pacific (Kuala Lumpur: ARROW, 2013), 22.  http://arrow.org.my/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ICPD-20-Asia-Pacific_Monitoring-Report_2013.pdf
[viii] An Advocacy Brief: Post 2015 Development Agenda. Influences of Religious Fundamentalism on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women. http://arrow.org.my/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Religious-Fundamentalism-and-Post-2015_Policy-Brief_2014.pdf
[ix] Ayesha Imam, The Devil is in the Details: At the Nexus of Development, Women’s Rights, and Religious Fundamentalisms (Toronto: AWID, 2016), 6. http://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/final_web_the_devil_is_in_the_details.pdf