Voices of religious leaders and other religious actors are getting louder in policy circles. This contrasts with a time not long ago when religious perspectives were almost entirely ignored and absent, even in areas with both long histories and present engagement (health care, education) and keen interest (protection of the environment, care of the most vulnerable). Today many religious actors are “pushing with our elbows," insistent that their practical and ethical perspectives and voices be heard. The voices are far from consistent or even coherent. Some have a prophetic quality, focusing on deep injustices such as inequality. Others focus on what many term “culture wars,” especially around sexuality and relationships between women and men. The voices are not necessarily heard or agreed to in the policy circles where they make themselves known. But their volume and frequency is rising.
As COVID-19 disrupts and destabilizes on a global scale, reports from very different societies point to increasing violence against women. A related topic is rising numbers of early and forced marriages. Since early April, international development organizations and governments have released harrowing statistics and briefs underlining the dangers women and girls face in the “shadow pandemic” brought on by lockdown. However, most of the data and analysis lack a significant faith lens and few offer actionable ways for faith leaders and groups to help combat the problem. Faith leaders are often well-respected in the community and have considerable power to change social norms and advocate on behalf of social causes. Engaging more purposefully with leaders, especially in vulnerable communities, could help prevent girls from entering early marriages. This could have myriad positive outcomes not only for the girls themselves but for cultural norms and the national economy.
Peacebuilders (who represent a large and diverse group) rely on in-person meetings and trust-building to address conflict, and in many places the COVID-19 crisis is blocking their work. Grassroots individuals and groups play roles in building foundations of community support upon which broader peace talks and reconciliation can be built. A webinar on July 8, 2020, hosted by Boston College explored the specific impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the work of Catholic leaders and communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The common theme was that even as conflict continues, restrictions linked to the COVID-19 emergency are reducing capacities to operate, but with creative adaptations efforts continue and some take new forms. Interestingly, some technological platforms earlier seen as too impersonal to work well in fact are showing considerable promise.
In early March, three individuals, with the support of our organizations launched an effort to track how the world’s different religious communities and institutions were responding to the COVID-19 emergency. Katherine and Olivia (the two authors) and Dave Robinson had all followed the 2014-5 Ebola crisis intensively, seeking insights into what worked and what did not, and looking to lessons as to how religious dimensions could and should be more integrally part of the strategic framework for response. We had pursued similar reflections on other pandemics, especially HIV and AIDS, malaria, Tuberculosis, and Zika. Thus, with early reports making it clear religious bodies were deeply involved in COVID-19: we started to gather information in a resource repository; began to send out daily highlights; organized a webinar series to learn more about what was happening in different regions; and shared ideas in the form of blogs and articles. The tempo is shifting as the pandemic approaches the half year mark, and, while uncertainties lie ahead, useful insights have emerged.
Lockdowns, business closures, and restrictions on movement to protect human life and dignity from the effects of COVID-19 come with challenging consequences. Governments everywhere struggle to confront pandemic conditions and the accompanying economic crisis. In Turkey, politics around COVID responses take on religious dimensions, notably apparent in steps to convert the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque.
This blog post overviews a webinar on “COVID-19, Religion and Belief: Contribution of Faith-Based Humanitarian Organizations” held on June 25, 2020. The online discussion was the twelfth in a series of webinars organized by a coalition of organizations: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, European Union Office; BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies; Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies; Bruno Kessler Foundation/CIRIS; University of Siena; and FGV Escola de Direito do Rio de Janeiro.
Human milk banks are repositories of breast milk that provide milk to preterm or undernourished infants, also serving mothers unable to lactate. Breast milk is well known in medical circles to be of immense value, particularly for underweight or sick infants suffering from health complications. However, in some Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Turkey, and now Bangladesh, milk banks have faced hurdles from Islamic groups and clerics who insist that the practice is in violation of religious law and also commercializes breast milk. The religious concern stems from the Islamic tenet that consuming human milk builds a kinship bond between infants who have consumed the same woman’s milk, which prohibits future marriage between the “milk-brothers and sisters” though they are biologically unrelated.
The COVID-19 crisis threatens to unravel substantial elements of the development progress Bangladesh has made over the last decade. Without overstating negative prospects, it is important to take into account the devastating social and economic repercussions that the present pandemic is having on one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Many faith-inspired organizations are responding in myriad ways and have a pulse on the situation on the ground. An important question is thus how faith-inspired development actors view their roles in this unique crisis and how they are responding to the social and economic threats and challenges.
Ironically, data coming in and the absence of reported incidents both point to clear increases in domestic violence as families, happy and otherwise, are forced by the COVID-19 crisis into lockdown. Stresses rise as people are forced to remain with abusers, putting personal safety at risk especially as the pandemic has crippled many support programs. Religious communities have taken on this issue more directly in recent years, spurred by both knowledge that domestic abuse is so omnipresent and by abuse cases within religious communities themselves. So how are religious communities responding to domestic abuse in the face of the COVID-19 crisis?
May 29 is the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, and the UN Secretary General has focused this year on women’s roles. He and the UN system overall, including the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, are thus underlining a longstanding effort to highlight women’s roles in the quest for peace. In October 2000, the Security Council of the United Nations adopted Resolution S/RES/1325 on women, peace, and security, spurred by stunningly low numbers of women visibly involved in peace negotiations and also in the processes that surround them. Since 2000, there has been inching progress, but women’s roles, crucial and varied as they are, tend to be largely invisible. Too often the focus on women is sadly as victims, of sexual violence but also as those who suffer from the harsh disruptions that go with conflicts, spending protracted years as refugees.