In our opinion: Religious freedom empowers women

The world needs to secure women’s rights as well as religious liberty. What’s often overlooked is the ways in which the two fundamental freedoms act in tandem to bring about an elevated quality of life.

The general president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sister Jean Bingham, gave a speech this month before the European Parliament in Brussels on religious liberty and female empowerment — two concepts that are rarely considered harmonious among secular policymakers, but which are vital to consider in tandem when considering that countries that fail to advance women are also failing to provide robust protections for religious liberty.

While this phenomenon may be a matter of correlation, there are areas that suggest some causation as well. Countries such as Syria, Yemen and Pakistan, among others, currently have some of the lowest rates of pay for women, female participation in the work force, female literacy and female political representation. Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center study from 2015 rates each of these nations as placing “very high” or “high” restrictions on religion.

Sister Bingham made a compelling case that religious freedom is essential for female empowerment, and government actors should see religious freedom as a link to creating a constellation of rights that leads to greater freedom for women throughout the world.

Furthermore, it is the responsibility of both political and faith leaders to work together to promote religious freedom and ensure empowerment for women around the world. In 2015, the World Economic Forum released a report on religious freedom and gender parity. In the report, researchers questioned the widespread societal assumption that “religion holds women back.” They discovered that there was a statistically significant correlation between governments with high restrictions on religious freedom and gender inequality.

In a world in which close to 70 percent of the population lacks religious freedom, and one and three women suffer some form of violence in their lives, leaders and citizens need to think about religious liberty and women’s rights as interconnected issues in bringing about greater freedom and human flourishing across the globe.

Sister Bingham sought to address the prevalent notion that religion and female empowerment are antithetical — that religion is somehow synonymous with oppression and violence. “It is entirely possible to protect religious freedom,” she said, “but punish the perpetrators of harmful practices against women.”

Sister Bingham called on governments to respect women’s basic human rights. “Instead of governments compelling what women do, how to do it and when to do it,” she said, “we must make sure their human rights — including their right to the religious beliefs of their choice — are respected.”

This approach was similar to one taken by LDS Church leader Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who spoke about violence against women in a 2016 conference on religious persecution in the United Kingdom. Both Elder Holland and Sister Bingham specifically condemned female genital mutilation and said that violence in the name of religion should never be tolerated. Religion can both empower and, sadly, oppress, and it is up to government and faith leaders to ensure it achieves the former.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper, Sister Bingham emphasized the church’s doctrinal commitment to human rights: “Because we’re all children under the same God … even if you belong to another faith, (your rights are) completely vital to my progress because we’re interconnected in that way.” She said in closing, “Empowering women should be a priority for all because they are a potent force for creating a society where peace, religious freedom and human rights can truly thrive.”

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