“Girls and women are most impacted by existing inequalities”

Photo: Dr. Azza Karam / Image via ‘Religions for Peace’

This is part two of our interview with Dr. Azza Karam. Part one can be found here.

Dr. Azza Karam serves as the senior advisor on social and cultural development at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). She is the first woman Secretary-General of Religions for Peace International and the lead facilitator for the United Nations Strategic Learning Exchanges on Religion-Development-Diplomacy since 2010. She coordinates engagement with the UN’s Global Interfaith Networks of 600 faith-based organizations.

We’re seeing a rise in populism and a lack of faith in governments. How should this be addressed?

All of our contemporary institutions are facing crises of legitimacy, not just governments. The crisis of faith in institutions is leading to diverse forms and levels of anarchy.  These are attempts to enact the ‘survival of the fittest’ ideology I mentioned earlier. Populism is a manifestation of that: where a small clique believes itself superior to others. Diversity itself becomes the enemy; a small clique seeks to dominate by denigrating the other. The interests of a few seek to overcome the welfare of the many. Ultimately, this harms everyone. The only ways to address these phenomena – which are simultaneously supported and counteracted by various forms of media, especially social media – is to insist on working together across the silo-thinking we are confronted with today.

We must insist, especially as faith leaders, on valuing and upholding the dignity of diversity of thought, conscience and faith rather than seeking to prioritise certain rights over others.

The dignity of each of us is intrinsically connected to the dignity of all of us.  And this is a message shared among all faiths – for why else would we call upon compassion, mercy and love, if it were not to serve the whole of humanity? The fundamental vision of faith is transcendent and inclusive. Faith does not recognise any of our differences or boundaries. When faiths work together, the enjoining of spirit and action is unparalleled. So, the only way to counter the narrow interest-based politics and narratives of populism is to secure an inclusive discourse (narrative and action) which transcends them.

You’ve talked about a ‘crisis of masculinity’. What do you mean by that and what are its political impacts?

The data we have tell us that an estimated that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Worldwide, almost 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18thbirthday. Child marriage is also common in West and Central Africa, where over four in ten girls were married before age eighteen, and about one in seven were married or in a similar union before the age of fifteen. Child marriage often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupts schooling, limits the girl’s opportunities and increases her risk of experiencing domestic violence.

This data points to the pervasiveness of a harmful form of masculinity – some have called it ‘toxic masculinity’. We live in a world where violence is normalised. From an early age, children are subjected to violence on screens (in the name of the movie or games industries), in their homes. Meanwhile, domestic violence and gender based violence in times of conflict increase – sometimes as part of the increasing experiences of displacement and seeking refuge. Girls and women are subjected to this violence at the hands of boys and men. Boys and men are themselves subject to expectations generated by media and long-standing social norms which are demanding, confusing and simply unrealistic.  If over 30% of households around the world are women-led, what happens to the traditional notion of men as the sole providers?

It is not uncommon, in some parts of the world, for mothers to work while the fathers serve the household needs. Again, what happens to the traditional notion of men as the providers? At the same time, women’s reign in public spaces has meant that even powerful decision-making jobs are no longer the sole purview of men, and have to be competed for. All in all, we are living in times with an increase of aggravated identities. Norms of masculinity are part of these.

You’ve mentioned feminist movements working within religious traditions. Can you describe what these movements bring to the debate?

Women who are deliberate in their efforts to realise their fundamental human and God-given rights through and with their faith traditions are more mainstream than secular feminists. These women of faith insist on (re)reading, (re)learning and (re)articulating their faith traditions from the perspective of their existence and life experiences as women. The body of knowledge and praxis which they create comes from each and every faith tradition around the world. They are the most frequently ignored (by the secular establishment) and yet the first to be active in the spaces in which the dignity of all human beings is being fought for. Because women of faith are (re)imagining their faith traditions, they are the architects and innovators of the entire religious narrative. As 90% of those actually serving their communities, their impact is significant since their very existence is directly visible.

How can secular and religious movements for women’s rights find common ground?

By working on specific, issue-based alliances and respecting the different strengths that each diverse set of constituencies brings to the struggle for human dignity. We make the mistake of assuming that those who are not in complete agreement with our way of doing things are against us. This warped philosophy is unfortunately rampant in today’s polarised geopolitics. But we have to realise that many of the challenges confronting women and limiting their sense of dignity today – whether it is equal pay for equal work, access to decent and affordable health-care and education, protection from, and justice for, all forms of discrimination and violence, access to decision-making or economic well-being – are challenges which are shared among girls and women. How secular and faith-based women’s rights actors go about securing these needs is different and diverse. But having different approaches does not mean we should limit strategic alliances.

What are the likely impacts of climate change on the prospects for women?

Simply stated: girls and women are most impacted by existing inequalities – social, political, financial, etc. Environmental challenges are increasing all forms of inequality. This means women and girls will suffer more.

Think of the challenges of accessing clean and affordable water as a result of climate change and environmental degradation. We can see that the increase in the miles which some rural women have to walk to find water; or think of environmental emigration and the hell of being homeless and on the road, or traversing dangerous territory with little to no security. Then perhaps we can begin to understand that many girls’ and women’s lives are becoming far more complicated.

What are your hopes for women in the future?

I hope to see more and more religious women develop more strategic alliances within and across their faith and with secular women – and men – which lead to multiple, novel and creative forms of leadership, in turn serving to eradicate social, political and economic injustices. I hope each and every woman can live well, love aplenty, and lead in peace, for peace – for all.