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Advancement of Women and Systematization of Learning

Updated: Apr 11, 2019

The Worldwide Bahá’í Community’s Approach to Social and Economic Development

Prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development

Nepal Baha'i
Saraswati School, a Bahá'í-inspired school in East Kanchanpur Nepal

Advancement of Women

The equality of men and women is another cardinal principle of the Bahá’í Faith. “The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote. “Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly.” Intrinsic to every instance of social action undertaken by Bahá’ís, regardless of the area of action it strives to address, is a commitment to the goal of ensuring that women and men are allowed to advance shoulder to shoulder in all fields of human endeavor—scientific, political, economic, social, and cultural. In addition, certain programs have focused specifically on the advancement of women by, for instance, providing education to women and girls to assist them to take their rightful place in society, striving to eliminate prejudices against women, and establishing mechanisms to protect their well-being.

At the grassroots, Bahá’ís strive to enhance the participation of women and girls in educational programs as students and participants, teachers and tutors, and coordinators and directors. These efforts have contributed to enhancing the role of women and changing attitudes in villages and neighborhoods. In the Monduli district of Tanzania, for example, as more and more girls attended Bahá’í-inspired community schools, it became increasingly common for parents to allow their daughters to continue their studies and get married at a later age. Further, ongoing conversations about the negative effects of female genital mutilation have led to a reduction in the percentage of female students being subjected to this practice.

The Barli Development Institute for Rural Women in India was established in 1985 with the aim of empowering rural and tribal women to become agents of social change in their communities. The Institute offers a free six-month residential training program to 260 illiterate or semi-literate women each year in areas including literacy, moral leadership, nutrition and health, environmental conservation, and income generation. It also builds the capacity of a smaller group of women who have received secondary education to facilitate a similar training in extension centers. Recognizing that attitudinal change on the part of husbands, parents, children, grassroots leaders, local institutions and other members of the community is equally essential to the process of empowering women, the Institute continues to visit the villages of former participants and conducts conferences and meetings and offers short-term courses. More than 8,000 women from approximately 800 villages of Madhya Pradesh and other parts of the country have thus far taken part in the Institute’s program.

Another example is the Tahirih Justice Center in the United States, which provides free legal and social services to immigrant women and girls who are seeking protection from gender-based violence. Since its establishment in 1997, the Center has assisted nearly 22,000 women and girls fleeing abuse and has reached thousands more through advocacy, training, and public education programs. In the area of public policy advocacy, the Tahirih Justice Center launched a campaign to end exploitation of foreign-born women by international marriage brokers, which led to the signing into law of the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act. The Center’s Forced Marriage Initiative that was launched in 2011 strives to protect vulnerable children across the United States from child marriage and has served to initiate a movement to reform laws on the minimum age of marriage in the country.

Colombia Baha'i School
A class at Ruhi Arbab School, a Bahá'í-inspired school in Jamundi-Robles, Colombia

Systematization of Learning

As indicated previously, learning is a central concern for every effort of social and economic development. Those involved strive that their activities evolve through an ongoing process of consultation, study, action, and reflection on action. In such a process, adjustments are made in response to objective analysis of experience, changing circumstances, and regular reflection on the meaning and implications of the writings of the Faith.

A process of learning at the local level, however, will remain limited in its efficacy if it is not connected to a body of knowledge informed by a broader process of learning. The role of the Office of Social and Economic Development (OSED) at the Faith’s world headquarters in Haifa, Israel, assumes particular significance in this light. The agency has been established to facilitate learning about development theory and practice in the Bahá’í community (see page 7). The functions it performs provide it with the perspective needed to gather and systematize learning about development taking place in Bahá’í communities around the world. When it identifies certain approaches and methodologies that are achieving particularly good results in some area of action, OSED arranges for pilot projects to be launched in different continents, the aim being to refine the content and methods and assemble them in a tested program. The program is then disseminated to countries where conditions allow for its implementation so that national Bahá’í communities can adapt it to their specific needs. As the number of institutions involved in carrying out the program grows, arrangements and structures for facilitating the flow of information and learning evolve accordingly, ensuring that communities around the world not only benefit from the program, but can also contribute to its further advancement.

To one or another extent, over the last few decades, efforts to systematize learning have been under way with respect to each of the areas described in the previous section, including arts and media, agricultural research, education, health, and community banking. It is expected that, over time, as more and more Bahá’í-inspired organizations emerge with the capacity to generate knowledge regarding various aspects of the development of their respective regions, their experience will give rise to new insights and programs that demonstrate their effectiveness in practice and could have application in other contexts.

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