Remarks by Lakshmi Puri at Symposium on the role of interfaith dialogue in peacebuilding and women’s empowerment


Remarks by Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director, UN Women, at Symposium on the role of interfaith dialogue in peacebuilding and women’s empowerment. New York.12 February 2013.

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Your Excellency, Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu, Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation,
Distinguished Panelists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for your invitation to address this important symposium on the role of interfaith dialogue in peacebuilding and women’s empowerment.

I would like to complement the Secretary-General’s message with a few points relevant to the work of UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

As you know, UN Women was created a bit more than two years ago by the United Nations General Assembly.

This decision signaled an unprecedented commitment by all Member States to scale up support for gender equality and the empowerment of women. And it marked the successful culmination of many years of advocacy by civil society organizations to create a stronger UN organization dedicated to promoting and advancing the needs of women and girls worldwide.

An important role for UN Women is to foster partnerships with multiple stakeholders in order to advance the agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Advancing gender equality requires the involvement of all segments of society.

In every country around the world, gender stereotypes and gender-based discrimination continue to run deep in the common psyche. Positive change requires everybody’s engagement – women and men, girls and boys, government leaders, parliamentarians, women’s groups, the private sector, community and traditional leaders, and of course faith-based organizations.

Through our work in more than 70 countries, we have found an important partner in faith-based organizations. Some of our partnerships have been instrumental in furthering our work for the promotion of gender equality and especially in the area of peacebuilding.

Peacebuilding and the promotion of gender equality are interlinked. Peace in communities, and in the world, can be deepened and sustained though gender equality. Equality enables all people to flourish and reach their fullest potential.

At the same time, peacebuilding also creates opportunities to advance gender equality and empower women. While political, social and economic structures are being redefined and renegotiated and countries and societies rebuilt, much can be done to remove gender-based discriminatory practices.

We at UN Women are committed to working with all organizations in which this profound understanding and dedication to peace and equality is a shared goal. Our work in many countries has shown that interfaith dialogue can play a positive role in making and sustaining peace, while promoting gender equality and women’s rights.

We have promoted interfaith dialogue in three main ways:

First, to advance women’s engagement in peace processes and conflict prevention;

Second, to stop violence against women;

Third, to end discrimination against women in general.

In Nepal, we supported the formation of a national inter-religious network to combat violence against women. We linked religious leaders with peace activists, advocates for the rights of migrant women workers, and male leaders from the Men Engage Alliance against gender-based violence.

Religious leaders participated in awareness-raising on women’s human rights and gender-based violence, and this inter-faith network trickled down to the district level to fight for social justice for Muslim and Madhesi women.

We also partnered with the World Hindu Federation to publish a study on the values of Hinduism with regards to gender equality and violence against women, and Hindu religious leaders used this to speak more forcefully and frequently on these matters in their preaching and outreach activities efforts.

With Religions for Peace in India, our partnership included global, internet-based advocacy to end violence against women.

In South Asia, UN Women has been working with faith-based organizations comprising Buddhist monks, Hindu priests and Muslim Maulvis to address the challenge of trafficking of children and women. The Muslim leaders in Bihar, India, for example, chose to devote one Friday per month to raise awareness on child trafficking and gender inequality.

In Rwanda, we supported an organization of the Presbyterian Church to train more than 400 Catholic, Muslim, and Protestant leaders, in all thirty districts of the country, on the role of religious leaders in promoting the participation of women in decision-making.

In the Balkans, we have encouraged faith leaders to promote women’s rights and combat gender-based violence. We have also supported women’s engagement and efforts to seek leadership within inter-faith dialogues and networks, for instance via our collaboration with Medica Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Faith has that special power to bridge boundaries and bring people closer. Leaders of mosques, churches, temples, synagogues and other religions play a powerful role in shaping attitudes, opinions and behaviours.

They have a large constituency, including women and youth; they have outreach and networks; and they are credible to their people.About 70 percent of the world’s population identify themselves as members of a faith community.

To bring positive change in people’s lives, it is essential to understand the values and practices that are the essence of our individual and collective identities. These do not exist in isolation of political, economic and social processes. They are deeply entwined in the fabric of daily life.

Beyond shaping common values – and through that promote gender equality – faith-based organizations also play an important role in supporting communities. They are the oldest and sometimes most trusted social service networks. It is estimated that faith-based organizations provide 50 percent of the health and education services in poor communities around the world.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of the healthcare infrastructure is operated by faith-based groups. In this sense, too, they are natural partners in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. This support is sometimes the only access that poor women have to life-saving services.

This social networking and social protection is an important contribution to building and sustaining peace in communities and mitigating some of the inequalities that exacerbate resentments that can lead to conflict.

Through our work at UN Women, we have found that building alliances with and involving faith leaders and members are factors that can actually determine a programme’s success and failure.

This is particularly critical in traditional societies, where the assertion of women’s rights can be perceived as a threat to structures of power. Instead, the benefits of gender equality and women’s empowerment can become convincing arguments to further this agenda.

Interfaith dialogue also needs to be embedded in the work of the United Nations. Faith perspectives count because the international dialogue between North and South, East and West, has also been about culture and religion. Much has been done by the whole United Nations system to promote and enhance interfaith dialogue and engagement with faith-based organizations.

UN Women participates in the Interagency Task Force on engaging faith-based organizations, which is chaired by UNFPA. This is an important initiative to coordinate the work of the UN system in this area.

In our diverse and plural world, we need discourses that promote plurality, cohesion and acceptance of the other, rather than divergence. Such ideas and values, when promoted simultaneously by different faiths, can have a lasting legitimacy. UN Women will continue to be a strong partner in this endeavor.

I look forward to a rich discussion today.

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