NEW YORK--Around the world, the high cost of gender inequality can be seen in all cultures and societies.
Violence against women is pervasive, affecting more than one-third of women worldwide, while women almost everywhere are paid less for doing the same jobs as men. And although progress has been made in closing the gender gap in schools, girls still lag behind boys in access to education, especially in early adolescence and situations of extreme poverty.
Religious traditions and messages have had a substantial role in perpetuating these inequalities--and in ameliorating them.
On the one hand, traditional religious beliefs or interpretations have been used to repress women, keep them in subservient roles, restrict their movement, or limit their role as leaders. The examples are almost too numerous to mention.
On the other hand, many women and men have found religious messages on equality, solidarity, and justice to be powerful factors in motivating them to work for change. A number of early feminists, for example, cited religious messages as one source of inspiration. And in many countries, faith-based organizations provide critical health and educational services to women and girls.
Whether one is a believer or not, religion unquestionably plays a powerful role in society as a whole, touching the lives of nearly everyone.
"Religious groups are in our view one of the most important influences of social and cultural norms," said Lakshmi Puri, the Deputy Executive Director of UN Women. "And social and cultural norms present some of the strongest barriers to gender equality, to ending discrimination, to ending violence against women."
The gap between faith and feminism
For many years, there seemed to be a dichotomy between feminist groups and women involved in faith-based organizations. Feminists often saw religion and religious leaders as enemies of progressive ideas on reproductive rights, female genital mutilation, or early childhood marriage, whereas women of faith sometimes felt torn as they pursued equality but also tried to live up to or support the dictates of their religious traditions. Somewhere in the middle were UN agencies, which sought to work with everyone but which also perceived some religious practices as violating human rights, especially the rights of women and girls.
"The divide between faith and feminism has been so long unexamined, and the two categories were seen as completely contrary and...