Faith in service: what has gender got to do with it?
Faith-based organizations are playing increasingly prominent roles in service delivery. However, the premise that such organisations promote gender equality and the empowerment of women needs critical re-examination.
Faith-based organizations play a central role in welfare provision and delivery in many parts of the world. They account for roughly 50 percent of health service provision in many African countries and play a significant role in the provision of education in South Asia, Latin America and Africa. The role of these organisations in AIDS treatment in Africa has also received recognition, providing 40% of HIV care and treatment services in countries such as Lesotho and almost a third of the HIV/AIDS treatment facilities in Zambia. There is an increasing interest on the part of many actors, not least donors and policy-makers, in using and promoting faith-based organizations delivering services to advance a variety of agendas.
The case for enlisting faith-based organizations to advance gender equality rests on three central claims. First, the possibility of calling upon religious leaders and organizations who can, through their high profile and legitimacy, endorse positive social change UNFPA (2008), for instance, provides some impressive case studies of recruiting religious leaders on AIDS campaigns and reproductive health awareness initiatives.
However, partnership with male leadership fails to guarantee that an equality agenda will be adopted, as the experience of the Federation of Muslim Women Association of Nigeria( FOWMAN), a prominent faith-based organization shows. An alliance between FOWMAN and Islamic scholars and government has rendered the movement dependent on powerful men for legitimacy.
Second, the social networks provided by faith-based organizations and the help women receive through membership in churches and mosques can be crucial to their daily survival. Building social capital through membership in religious groups, however, raises concerns over social cohesion and the politics of exclusion in multi-faith communities.
Finally, a faith-based approach to development is claimed to allow for a more holistic understanding of needs that takes account of both material and spiritual dimensions. However, the distinction between spirituality and religious observance is often blurred when there is pressure to conform to one particular understanding of how faith should manifest itself in mores, behaviours and relationships.
Three conundrums are worth noting in relation to faith based organisations delivering services. While some provide women with a spiritual and social repertoire that may act to empower them, they may simultaneously prescribe (and circumscribe) the ways in which they are expected to exercise their agency. Furthermore, the assumption that FBOs working at the grassroots level necessarily emanate from the grassroots and respond to local concerns is questionable. The third conundrum concerns the implications of what may be termed as the “food-for-faith” relationship. These will be discussed in turn.
Start of a much longer article which continues at http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/mariz-tadros/faith-in-service-what-has-gender-got-to-do-with-it