Faith organizations sharpen human rights skills

 An LWF participant at the gender justice training course, Rita Flore, says the pain of discrimination drives her determination to overcome the situation. Photo: LWF/S.Gallay
An LWF participant at the gender justice training course, Rita Flore, says the pain of discrimination drives her determination to overcome the situation. Photo: LWF/S.Gallay

LWF one of the leaders of workshop promoting justice for women

(LWI) - Impunity and disregard for justice in Honduras cost the life of a woman every 12 hours, says Suyapa Ordoñez, a student of theology involved in pastoral work in the Christian Lutheran Church of Honduras. “The rule of law does not exist. With total impunity, the law means nothing.”

Ordoñez was one of nearly 50 people from six organizations in Geneva for a four-day workshop to learn tools to improve their advocacy with bodies of the United Nations. The workshop was jointly organized by the Lutheran World Federation, Finn Church Aid, Mission 21, Church of Sweden, World Council of Churches and and the World YWCA.

Guest speakers included representatives of the Baha’i International Community, Amnesty International swisspeace and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Participants attended one of the state party reviews on the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was meeting in Geneva at the time.

As her church contact for the Latin American and Caribbean Women and Gender Justice Network of the LWF, Ordoñez is working with the women in the church to raise awareness of the level of impunity for crimes against women in Honduras. The women’s movement in Honduras is promoting legislation before Congress that calls for tougher measures for perpetrators of violence against women.

Christian women are particularly susceptible because there is still an understanding that they are expected to be submissive to men, she said.

“Therefore, it is a huge step when churches say no to violence against women. Women know we are made in the image of God, that we are equals with men and that there is no justification for violence against women. In our prayers we all bear in mind the human rights abuses we have to endure. One task of the church is to work to end impunity and reach for justice.”

Using the UN to hold governments responsible

In Honduras, attempts to defend human rights may be perceived as a crime. Activism has cost the life of human rights activists like Berta Cáceres, an environmentalist and indigenous leader, murdered for her views four months ago. Cáceres was known to Ordoñez. During the workshop, participants received the sad news that another woman activist had been assassinated.

“We even have the disappearance of mothers, leaving behind small children. This violence against women is something that moves me to activate my Christian faith for the service of my sisters. My role is prophetic – to announce and to denounce,” Ordoñez said.

The LWF gender justice policy is a powerful tool in the struggle against gender violence, particularly as a means to identify vulnerable women who need support and to develop faith understanding to address injustice.

She hopes to use CEDAW to work with other civil society movements to claim accountability from the government, which has ratified CEDAW but does not implement it. The church can be a place to help women to articulate their voices. It will contribute to the Honduras CEDAW review in three months.

“This training has expanded my horizons in terms of the possibilities of getting involved. Being here and hearing other people’s experiences has been an eye-opener. Violence against women takes similar expression all over the world but it took coming here to discover it,” said Ordoñez.

“Why do you want to work?”

Another LWF participant Rita Flores, of the Bolivian Evangelical Lutheran Church, says that in Bolivia, just the fact of being a woman is cause for discrimination.” On top that, indigenous Aymara women have to contend with discrimination based on their dress and use of their language, as well as workplace discrimination. Rural women find it particularly hard. “In job interviews, it even goes as far as if your husband has paid work, why do you want to work? He is already the breadwinner.”

Four years ago, the Bolivian church started working in the city of El Alto to help migrant women familiarize themselves with national law. “With the government that has been in place for nearly 10 years, many laws women can use to claim their rights are now being popularized.”

A workshop session that used theatre to raise awareness on gender stereotypes and power imbalance was exciting for her because she works with many illiterate women. Theatre could be a valuable medium for teaching them their rights, she said.

While violence against women breaks heart every time, she said the pain drives her determination to overcome the situation and build bridges so that women lacking resources can get support.

Gender justice is a matter of faith

In opening the workshop, LWF general secretary Rev. Dr Martin Junge said gender justice mattered as a matter of faith.

He quoted Spanish theologian José Vigil, “For those who have heard and seen how God wants this world to be it is hard to accept the world as it is.” Faith communities have had a long journey to begin to understand how this statement relates to gender, gender justice and power relations, he said.

“We are just beginning to understand and take it up from a conviction of faith that there should be justice in gender relationships.”

Gender justice stems from faith, but the question is how to bring that faith conviction into the public space, Junge said. The LWF gender justice policy is an attempt to explain why we care about gender justice, and helps us to address the concept of gender from a theological and faith-based perspective.

He encouraged participants to see ways of turning local engagement into a contribution at the global level and hoped the workshop would enrich and encourage them to sustain their commitment to gender justice.

Workshop organizer, Cristina Rendon, said, “What the LWF and its faith-based partners sought with this training was to link the actions that the participants are carrying out in 31 different countries with advocacy tools, such as the CEDAW and the Universal Periodic Review mechanisms.

“Faith-based organizations have enormous potential to support women in claiming their rights, but at the same time, they are key in challenging cultural norms that can be harmful to women and that perpetuate gender-based discrimination.”