WOMEN, GLOBALIZATION & RELIGION: Peace Councilors and leaders of international women's organizations met in Chiang-Mai, Thailand; February-March 2004. Participants unanimously approved CHIANG MAI DECLARATION on "Religion and Women: An Agenda for Change."
• A meeting of the Peace Council was held in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, from Sunday, February 29, to Friday, March 5, 2004. Peace Councilor Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni was the host Councilor. The purpose of the meeting was to reduce barriers to cooperation between women's organizations and faith communities (often perceived as indifferent or even hostile to women’s issues). (A more complete description of the context and purposes of this gathering can be found below.)
• The meeting opened with overviews of the issues by Dr. Vandana Shiva and Prof. Christine Gudorf. For a summary of Gudorf's observations, see: "World Religions on Women."
• At the conclusion of the meeting, participants issued a statement: Religion and Women: An Agenda for Change, challenging women's organizations and religious communities to collaborate in advancing the status and human rights of women. The declaration was unanimously approved by the 52 participants. (Participants' names are listed following the text of the statement.)
• A Study Guide to accompany the Declaration includes links to other websites where more information can be found on issues relating to women's human rights, trafficking in women, HIV/AIDS, refugees and displaced persons, exploited laborers, violence agains women, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
• The meeting was the result of a collaboration between the Peace Council and the Center for Health and Social Policy and included international leaders of women’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs): a conversation on Women, Globalization, and Religion. It also featured meetings and field visits with local NGOs and individuals working on women’s issues.
• The Peace Council and the Center for Health and Social Policy will publish the formal presentations and discussions that result from these encounters The dialogue is intended to be a catalyst for similar regional and local discussions.
• This multi-year effort is funded by grants from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The World Bank, The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Catholics for a Free Choice, Religion Counts, The International Women's Health Coalition, The International Planned Parenthood Federation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Pathfinder Fund, The Ford Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation.
• The first four days of the gathering were joint sessions with the Center for Health and Social Policy and leaders in women’s work invited from around the world.
• On the final two days the Peace Council reviewed its other programs and decided on future programs and methods. As with all gatherings of the Peace Council, there was time for private and informal discussion, time to renew friendships, and time for prayer together.
• This meeting also supported the work of Peace Councilor Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, including her efforts to train new Buddhist nuns (see related story: from the Christian Science Monitor) at her temple in Bangkok and her assistance to victims of prostitution and rape, as well as her outreach throughout Thailand.
• The Chiang Mai area is a living laboratory of work on refugee, human rights, and women’s issues. Several of Ven. Dhammananda’s co-workers in the Chiang Mai area and at Chiang Mai University are assisting with arrangements.
Women and Religions in a Globalized World
Conversations to Advance Gender Equity
Among the most powerful forces affecting our rapidly changing world are globalization and religion. More than 5 billion people adhere to one of the world’s religions; more important, the fundamental values of all religions strive to protect the dignity of every human being. Globalization has two very important consequences. One is that it has unleashed economic forces that do not recognize national borders and are marginalizing many people unable to share its fruits. The other is that increasing communications, travel, and migration are bringing people of very different cultures face-to-face, forcing them to understand and explain their differences including their religious values to the other.
In many ways, women have been poorly served by both religion and globalization. The discrimination against women by many world religions, as they are practiced, is obvious; but religions are increasingly aware of their need to improve gender equity in society, in the family and within their own communities. Among people who are at present marginalized by economic globalization, women predominate. In the quest to accelerate global development and to increase social justice around the world, in a peaceful environment, improving women’s status is thus a key issue. Responding to this challenge requires innovative political, social, and economic changes that will be shaped in a considerable measure by religious values.
Purpose and Activities
With this perspective, the Center for Health and Social Policy and the international and inter-religious Peace Council are developing a series of activities with the purpose of stimulating religions to become more active in advancing women’s rights and opportunities. These activities are expected to include a series of ?conversations? among religious and women leaders, that if successful should be followed by increased collaboration among them.
The project will be carried out in two stages. The centerpiece for the initial stage will be an international "conversation of prominent religious and women leaders to establish a basis for such collaboration. Stage II should include similar conversations, at regional and national levels, which we expect will be followed by concrete collaborative activities.
This initial stage started in 2002 by seeking personal advice from prominent religious and women leaders around the world, about how to organize the initial ?conversation? and by requesting the preparation of background papers, plus other preparatory steps. This stage of the project will culminate in a global ?conversation,? to be held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on February 29 to March 3, 2004, that will bring together about 60 international participants. Half will be religious leaders, including mostly the distinguished Peace Councilors of the international and inter-religious Peace Council, and the other half will comprise recognized leaders of women’s organizations from around the world, involved in advancing women’s rights and well being. The selection of participants will be guided, apart from their personal prestige, by the need to have an adequate representation of all the main religions, as well as the best possible geographical balance. All invitations will be on a personal basis and the confidentiality of the discussions will be emphasized.
The purpose of the first ?conversation? in Chiang Mai is to start a respectful dialogue among religious and women leaders that should evolve into a movement that would help decrease some of the interdependent obstacles to peace and development by focusing on counteracting religious intolerance, patriarchy and social injustice. Specifically, the ?conversation? will discus the changing role of women in a globalizing world and how religions can help to improve women’s status. Such a dialogue should help religions to adapt the application of their principles to the new circumstances of our rapidly changing planet.
The three-day "conversation" will be structured around two background papers that will be circulated to the participants in advance of the meeting. One paper, from Christine Gudorf (a prestigious American feminist theologian, professor of comparative religion at Florida International University) will provide a global view of the role of women within religions and how religions see the role of women in society and in the family, as well as the challenges and obstacles religions are facing to improve the well being of women. Vandana Shiva (Indian physicist, well-known philosopher and ecofeminist, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology and vice-president of the Third World Network) will author the second paper. This paper will offer a global view of the perception of women about how religions and globalization are affecting their status in society and in the family, and how religions could be more helpful in improving their rights and well being.
Speakers at the opening session will include our Thai host and Peace Councilor Ven. Dhammananda, who will open the meeting and welcome the participants. She was recently ordained as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka. (The first Thai woman ordained in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, a practice that disappeared around the Twelfth Century and was restored in Sri Lanka in 1996.). In her previous life as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, she was professor of religion and philosophy at Thailand’s prestigious Thammasat University. She is now training other women to be ordained as female monks at Wat Kalyani, a Buddhist temple near Bangkok.
Prominent in this first conversation should be how social and economic progress is changing all societies in a way that deeply affects reproductive and sexual behavior. The globally increasing acceptance of a small family norm is one of the main underlying causes for the changing role of women in society and in the family. Modern fertility regulating technology makes it possible to separate sexuality and reproduction with reasonable efficacy and safety. The participants should address the causes and consequences of lower fertility and how it challenges the interpretation of many traditional cultural and religious values.
All participants are invited in a personal capacity, emphasizing the privacy of their discussions; but making it clear that their conclusions will be widely publicized. Wide dissemination of the results of the first conversation in different forms, will immediately follow, including publications of the main speeches, the background papers, and a declaration of the participants and/or an official report of the meeting. This documentation will be the basic background information for subsequent conversations, we expect will take place in the following Stage of this project.
Shaped by the results of the first global conversation, we expect Stage II to follow with similar conversations at regional and at national levels and concrete collaborative activities. While we cannot know in advance what these collaborations will be, they could range from religions revisiting official positions to collaborating more openly with women’s groups at the community level. We hope that these activities among leaders/activists from religious communities and civil society will generate a new kind of living interaction not just inter-religious but inter-societal connecting religious ideals with grassroots reality.
The Chiang Mai meeting -- and all participants personally -- should encourage such follow-up in order to jump-start a global movement of increased dialogue and collaboration that should help religions play a greater role in improving gender equity in the world. The two convening institutions will actively promote the activities expected in Stage II, but will not be responsible for organizing them, a task that should be assumed by regional or national groups; although both institutions will be willing to provide collaboration in any way that may be requested.
The Convening Institutions
The Center for Health and Social Policy
Since its inception in 1996, the Center for Health and Social Policy, has worked to advance policies that improve health and the social and economic factors that affect it. Emphasizing ethics and policy change, the Center focuses on, and has recognized expertise in, sexual and reproductive health, civil society, and health reform. It has given special attention to mitigating the negative social consequences of globalization and to improving women's status. Its emphasis on ethics and policy development allows for work in a variety of relevant areas such as religion, human rights, and systems of governance that affect policy decisions and outcomes.
The Center carries out its mission by a number of means: publications (both scholarly and popular), service of its senior staff members on boards and policy-making councils of international organizations, and convening leaders of disparate (primarily non-governmental) groups to discuss social issues in which they have a common interest.
The Center’s staff played an important role in influencing the direction taken by the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994. Stephen Isaacs was on the steering committee that organized the NGO Forum that was held parallel to the ICPD. Prior to the ICPD, he organized a conference on ethics, population, and reproductive health attended by prominent ethicists, policy makers, and religious leaders. José Barzelatto was instrumental in organizing a similar conference of religious leaders that took place in Genval, Belgium. Both conferences concluded with strong declarations the consensus of some of the world’s ethical and religious leaders that proved to be influential in combating fundamentalists’ attacks on the draft ICPD Programme of Action as immoral or anti-religious.
Under the leadership of senior staff members Stephen Isaacs, José Barzelatto, Axel Mundigo, and Elizabeth Dawson, the Center over the past five years, has organized with the Universidad Externado de Colombia, a meeting of Latin American Parliamentarians on Induced Abortion; as well as, a large conference of Latin American political leaders on the critical social issues of unwanted pregnancy, AIDS, and domestic violence. The Center has founded, in collaboration with CEPIA in Brazil, the Civil Society Forum of the Americas that brings together leaders of human rights, health, women, environment, peace, and other groups working to better their societies. The Center has also held a series of training workshops on reproductive health and rights for the top leadership of China’s State Family Planning Commission to help them as they move to a program based on reproductive choice.
The Peace Council
The Peace Councilors are religious and spiritual leaders from around the world. The Peace Council is the result of their commitment to work together in practical ways for peace. Conceived by the religious leaders themselves at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, the Council first met in London in December 1995. Its programs began immediately afterward.
The mission of the Peace Council is to demonstrate that peace is possible, and that effective inter-religious collaboration also is possible. In a world where religion too often is used to justify division, hatred, and violence, the Peace Councilors offer an alternative: the example of leaders from different religious communities working together in practical ways to relieve suffering and to make the world whole.
Centered in their respective faiths, the Peace Council manifests the wisdom of the world's spiritual traditions. It attempts to build bridges among all beings through the message of non-violence, compassion, human rights, and universal responsibility, individual and collective. While acknowledging the many failures and the frequent abuse of religion, the Peace Council celebrates its power to heal, to educate, to enlighten, and to transform.
Among international inter-religious organizations, the Peace Council is unique in two ways: (1) it is the only one whose purpose is to do practical and effective peace-making in the field; and (2) it is the only interfaith organization whose membership is restricted to recognized spiritual leaders who are personally committed to helping each other make peace.