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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - LONDON: Speakers at the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity’s (HCHF) Women’s 2021 Forum, attended by Arab News, have urged religious communities to work together in tackling gender violence and the coronavirus pandemic.
This came in the wake of the pope’s visit to Iraq to meet Christians and leaders of other faiths, including top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, which several speakers highlighted as an example of the power of cooperation.
Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO, recalled that the HCHF’s establishment came after the signing of a document of human fraternity by the pope and Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb in 2019, which urged “reconciliation of all the world’s citizens for the sake of universal peace.”
Azza Karam, senior advisor on culture at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), called the document “historic in every possible sense,” on account of it being a “commitment from two leading men of two of the largest religious establishments in the world. The fact that they can reiterate these points in a document in which they commit to the fraternity of humanity in and of itself is a remarkably valuable point.”
Karam, though, said a growing movement toward greater religious tolerance and cooperation at higher levels had been curtailed by COVID-19.
“What we see is (an) epidemic of gender-based violence that has taken (on) massive proportions, because we’re talking about a shrinking civil society space (where) those who help those gender-based violence survivors are civic institutions, before the governmental ones step in,” she added.
Karam said problems remain in responding to crises, from the pandemic to gender-based violence, because of a lack of coordination between secular and religious institutions, as well as between organizations belonging to different faiths.
“Civil society institutions are our future. Secular and religious civil spaces often operate in distinction from one other. There are very rare moments when we see a society convene the religious and the secular. What COVID-19 has helped us do is force us to look beyond the parameters and the boundaries of our traditional partnerships,” she added.
“We can’t afford to let the religions respond to humanitarian emergencies separately. We must encourage and support them to work together with one another, and to work with the secular institutions.”
UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem agreed, raising the specter of gender-based violence as an area where religious communities need to do more to help women, especially with rates of violence heightened by the circumstances caused by the pandemic.
“People of faith are called to uphold the values the HCHF represents. My concern is to make clear — there’s a pandemic within a pandemic that began ages and millennia ago. The respect and value of women must start with the girl child who must be encouraged to understand that she is the equal of everyone on the planet, and that her aspirations are important,” she said.
“This pandemic has brought forth a gender-based violence statistical explosion, but long before the pandemic, the truth is that on average one in three females experienced some form of gender-based violence or harassment during her lifetime,” she added.
“The UN … is working deeply with governments … to support responses. The increasing rates of domestic violence have been a challenge, calling on all of us to adapt very quickly,” Kanem said.
“You can imagine if someone is in lockdown, locked in with an abusive partner, the ability to contact someone, have someone visit, have a hotline, can be lifesaving. We’re paying attention to the prevention of violence, and in this sense I think the community of faith has the responsibility to de-stigmatize women and girls who come forward to complain, to say that they’re uneasy or that something is wrong,” she added.
“Girls out of school are much more available for child marriage, the promulgation of female genital mutilation, and other things that can be done to them against their will,” Kanem said, adding that it is “very important for communities, traditional leaders and faith leaders” to do more to stop violence against women.
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