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Religious Leaders Call for U.N. Action on Sexual & Reproductive Health

Faith leaders gather at the United Nations to urge action on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. Photo credit: UNFPA/Omar Kasrawi

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 19 2014 (IPS) - On the eve of a major U.N. special session on population and development, a delegation of religious leaders released a statement calling for action on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.

The declaration, issued on the sidelines of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly, urged world leaders to uphold these rights and ensure they are reflected in the U.N.’s post-2015 evelopment agenda currently under discussion.

“We, people of faith, call upon the United Nations system and Member States to ensure that sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights be made central to the post-2015 sustainable development agenda,” says the statement.

More than 40 leaders from around the world, representing the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim faiths, convened at UN Headquarters on September 18-19 to issue this clarion call, and to discuss their own challenges and successes in advancing these rights.

UNFPA’s faith-based partners work to advance human rights at the community level. Yet they often encounter stiff opposition, particularly at their efforts to promote sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and freedom from violence, according to UNFPA.

“We stand today, facing critical challenges,” the statement acknowledged. “Too many of our communities still suffer the indignities of stigma, discrimination, violence and multiple forms of injustice. When such violations happen in the name of religion, culture or tradition we are aggrieved and hurt, as well as challenged to respond.”

All of the faith-based organisations represented at the event have a long history of working with vulnerable communities, UNFPA said.

Buddhist Global Relief, for example, works with people living with HIV and supports survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

“As women are the centre of the community, if women are empowered… they can provide for their families – they can provide for their whole village,” said Sylvie Sun, the organization’s fundraising chair.

Bishop Julio Murray of the Anglican Church in Panama, who is also the president of the Ecumenical Committee in Panama and former president of the Latin American and Caribbean Council of Churches, says the churches he works with have reached a consensus “that we will walk hand-in-hand to struggle and fight against all situations that have to do with sexual and reproductive rights.”

With support from UNFPA, his organisation has produced educational materials for schools and churches “making people aware and conscious of the sexual and reproductive rights that we have,” he said.

They have also performed an assessment in 11 countries of people’s awareness of these rights and of countries’ efforts to safeguard them. These programmes are bearing fruit, the religious leaders said.

“It is so wonderful to see so many Muslim women today standing up and demanding there has to be change, there has to be equality, and justice for Muslim women,” said Zainah Anwar, the director of Musawah, the Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family.

But the faith leaders conceded their work remains extremely challenging.

Their statement – ‘A Call to Action: Faith for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights’ – repudiates abuses, often thought to be based in religion, that undermine human rights.

“Not in our name should any mother die while giving birth,” it says. “Not in our name should any girl, boy, woman or man be abused, violated or killed. Not in our name should a girl child be deprived of her education, be married, be harmed or abused. Not in our name should anyone be denied access to basic health care, nor should a child or adolescent be denied knowledge of and care for his/her body. Not in our name should any young person be denied their full human rights.”

Applauding their work, UNFPA Deputy Executive Director Kate Gilmore said:. “Your voices are brave in speaking out and standing up for human rights that are associated with sensitivities, a fair share of controversy, and are often contested.”

“I want to take this opportunity to commend you for your courage and for your track record and your achievements,” she added.

For Anwar, all of these collective achievements speak to a shared belief in justice and equality. “In the 21st century,” she said, “there cannot be justice without equality.”

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