August 22, 2017

A Moral Issue That Challenges Us

This was written for the Church Times in February 2013

Gender has been very much on the global agenda over the last few weeks. The ‘One Billion Rising’ demonstrations across the world on Valentine’s Day focussed attention on violence against women, calling for governments and legislators to give this priority over the coming year. The vision of a world where women and men experience equal respect, security and freedom from harm is crucial – and an essential part of Christian redemptive hope.

The same vision was behind a less public gathering I had attended earlier. Gender equality, respect and freedom were again central, but now the context was different. The Emerging Markets Symposium met quietly in Oxford, under Chatham House Rules, drawing together fifty or so global economists, diplomats, politicians and academics to exchange insights and explore strategies towards greater gender equality.  This Symposium was formed some years ago around the belief that the social and economic challenges faced by the middle-income emerging markets (China, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Turkey) are different from those which face both advanced and economically poor countries. So it encourages practitioners and theorists to share research and experience, acknowledging the connectedness of economics and ethics. This was very true in the area of gender.  Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, and Symposium Chair, Shaukat Aziz, articulated it succinctly in opening the Symposium: ‘Gender inequality is morally wrong, bad economics and bad for business.’

I was interested that the gathering included those for whom gender was unexplored terrain, as well as those who had done years of empirical work in the area. Yet as we poured over economic statistics, looked at growth and innovation, and discussed issues of production and reproduction, there was extraordinary unanimity in interpreting what we uncovered. We found that although the 22 countries identified as emerging markets are very different from each other, they overlapped in their patterns of gender inequality. Women staff were paid less than equally qualified male peers, they were under-represented in corporate hierarchies, and domestic roles often cut short women’s education and training. We also found when countries did become more gender-inclusive in areas of economics, health, education and decision-making they enjoyed faster growth, better health outcomes and less political instability.

Economic and development factors, however, are always interwoven with deep cultural – religious attitudes and practices. Take the dowry. Ostensively an economic transaction between families, it carries with it assumptions of value and ownership which have significant repercussions, not least in the practice of selective abortion of girl babies and the resulting uneven sex ratio at birth. And when we reflected on bride burning or female trafficking we inevitably moved into the same moral territory as the Valentine’s Day marches.

Even though many of the Symposium’s participants were avowedly secularist and accustomed to an overt secular approach, the organisers had included in the programme an examination of the impact of religion. For, of a global population of 7 billion, almost 6 billion are affiliated to a faith tradition, which deeply shapes culture and gender attitudes. My own contribution, as a Christian, aimed to open up the radical nature of the Christian Gospel for gender equality, and to identify both the failures and the faithfulness of the global Church in grappling with its redemptive vision.

The acknowledgement that faith traditions have something to contribute to a discourse on gender was encouraging. And I found delegates ready to engage with theological issues with the same rigour they had shown throughout. Yet, this inclusion leaves a bigger challenge for the Church – not just to proclaim God’s calling to gender justice and empowerment, but to live it out in our practices and communities: – celebrating women’s vocation in the home, the economy, the workplace, the pulpit – and the House of Bishops!

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