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Building Communities Free of Gender-Based Violence: The Constructive Role of Religion

multiple girls are shown standing around making a web, each women are different ages
What does it look like for a religious community to work toward a gender-equal world free from violence? Central to the efforts of the Baha’i Faith is a process of spiritual education and social empowerment.

NEW YORK— The work of eradicating gender-based violence, carried forward by UN WOMEN, the Gender-Based Violence Action Coalition, and many others, proceeds on fronts ranging from strengthening legal frameworks, to expanding support services, to resourcing and recognizing women’s rights organizations. At the heart of such efforts is the construction of local communities that are strong, resilient, just, and free from gender-based violence. And key to this process of community building are faith communities, and the role to be played by religion itself, understood as a system of knowledge, meaning, value, and action.

It must be acknowledged that those acting in the name of religion have all too often exacerbated gender-based violence instead of alleviating it. This is a painful fact that requires an unequivocal response: no custom, tradition, or religious interpretation ever outweighs the obligation—both legal and moral—to eradicate violence against women and girls.

At the same time, to build communities increasingly free from violence is to engage those foundational issues—who we are, what our purpose is in life, how we relate to one another—that have always been the province of religion. The equality of women and men is not merely a tally of comparable resources or a set of social norms. Rather, it is a truth about human nature, reflecting the nobility latent in every human being. The spark of the Divine, recognized by so many religious systems as being present within each of us, affirms the inherent equality of the sexes and demands its full realization in the social systems around us.

What does it look like for a religious community to work toward a gender-equal world free from violence? Central to the efforts of my own religious tradition, the Baha’i Faith—which makes no claim to perfection—is a process of spiritual education and social empowerment centered on assisting growing numbers of individuals to apply spiritual teachings to daily life and to the challenges facing society.

The equality of women and men is explicit in the approach and curricula of this process, the central objective of which is building capacity for lasting social change. Many women who enter its educational programs as participants gain the confidence and skills necessary to begin leading activities themselves. Some go on to coordinate the efforts of others, men and women alike. As they become increasingly valued resources recognized in the local community, women’s conceptions of themselves and their potential contribution to society can expand significantly.

But while capacity being built in growing numbers of women is central to a vibrant and resilient community, equally important is the transformation and active support of men and boys. In every culture, deeply rooted assumptions and prejudices about gender distort the development of both men and women, and foster environments in which gender-based violence can thrive. Assisting men and boys in areas of human expression in which they have been historically underdeveloped is therefore an essential component of a lasting resolution to patterns of aggression and dominance.

The educational process described here directly confronts the habits of patriarchy. Seeing women serving in positions of increasing responsibility, visibility, and decision-making in the local community, for example, has challenged many men’s assumptions about gender roles. But the paradigm is not one of opposition alone.

Those men who are taking part in the process engage the concept of gender equality as a fundamental truth of human reality, grounded in their own advancing understanding of the Divine Will. Coming to recognize that movement toward a more gender equal world is to everyone’s benefit, including their own, they are assisted to infuse this principle in their personal relationships and to take steps to apply it to the patterns of society around them.

And as growing numbers of both sexes commit themselves to processes of community transformation, experience from over 180 countries demonstrates that deeper collective consultation on shared values and priorities becomes possible and long-standing norms around gender dynamics become susceptible to change.

What I hope to have done in sharing the experience of the Baha’i Faith is to demonstrate the vital role that people and communities of faith can play in bringing the noble teachings and ideals of religion to bear on grave social challenges such as gender-based violence.

As we seek to eradicate violence against women and girls, we must not lose sight of the broader, long-term goal: namely the creation of conditions in which women and men can work shoulder to shoulder in constructing a more just and equitable social order. Let us draw on the contributions of all who long to contribute toward such a necessary goal.

Bani Dugal is Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations

Originally published on the Baha'i International Community Site.

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