When I started working as the first dedicated Gender Advisor at CAFOD nine years ago I wondered what it would be like – working on the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights in a Catholic organisation. Well, I can tell you this – it wasn’t always easy. The term ‘gender’ was then and continues to be now a hot potato, sparking heated debates in every gender training I had delivered over these years, both in Europe and in the many countries CAFOD’s partner organisations work in.
Several times when visiting a new place, I would be greeted with initial suspicion and at times be confronted with questions such as: ‘Why did you come here? To do what exactly?’ ‘Are you trying to make women and men the same?’ ‘This is the way things have always been here. Who are you to expect things to be done differently?’ Despite this, whilst promoting gender justice within the Catholic community definitely has its challenges, I can assure you it has far more opportunities. More importantly, now is the right time to build on these opportunities and reach beyond our comfort zones.
So, what is the problem with ‘gender’ then? Some people I have come across think when talking of gender equality, that it only applies to women and that gender projects would only support women excluding men. Others are under the misconception that gender equality is a foreign Western concept that does not fit with some of the existing cultural traditions, or they fear that it seeks to confer women with power over men. How to respond to these misunderstandings? I explain that gender equality is not about any of these things. I respond by highlighting the following, that it is about creating conditions for love, compassion and justice for the poor, that it is about poor women and men. I stress the point that gender equality seeks to bring good news and equal opportunities for all and that the Church has a vital role to play in promoting such equal opportunities for all people and in preserving the dignity of women as well as men.
The Believe in Change toolkit was developed precisely for that purpose: to support the Church in promoting gender justice. The toolkit is a gender resource for organisational staff from church organisations, particularly Catholic church organisations and those who intend to work with these church organisations. The toolkit is intended as an inspirational guide to support them in their work towards achieving gender justice. This toolkit builds on learning from and discussions with partners on their approach to gender while I was the Gender Advisor at CAFOD (2009-2018). It intends to raise awareness of the importance of gender equality, address concerns and common misconceptions and increase staff gender competency and programme quality. CAFOD’s external gender review stressed the need for capacity and confidence building for both CAFOD and partner staff, especially in relation to encouraging church partners to promote gender equality in their work. Partners mentioned how they wanted to work more on gender, but at times felt a bit ‘intimidated and confused by the language used and the technical expertise required’.
The toolkit was launched in March 2018 bringing together case studies, examples and learning from all corners of the world including inspirational statements, theological reflections, practical exercises and tools. So far it has been tested and piloted with CAFOD partners in Uganda, Kenya, Myanmar and Bangladesh. A joint CAFOD/CIDSE delegation visited the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) delivering training on this toolkit to representatives from SECAM and the National Catholic Secretariat. The overall response to the training and the toolkit has been very positive with participants enjoying the variety of useful practical exercises, the values and methodology applied. They felt especially comfortable and reassured with the language used. Being able to better understand the values and language faith-based organisations identify with was appreciated by other audiences this toolkit was introduced to. For example, participants attending the Religion and Gender seminar organised by the Partnership for Religion and Development (PaRD) welcomed toolkits such as the Believe in Change toolkit for their value of building bridges between the religious and the secular. The toolkit also received a warm welcome at the 62nd session of the United Nations Conventionmmission on the Status of Women (UN CSW), where it was presented at an inter-faith panel in one of the NGO side-eventsparallel sessions.
What next you may ask? The toolkit comprises of case studies from CAFOD programmes and partners and is available for non-commercial re-use. The current case studies can easily be replaced with those of your own partner organisations as long as you reference the original material in the event of any re-use. In this light several members of the CIDSE gender working group will undertake a participatory training of trainer’s workshop to be equipped to disseminate and use this toolkit for training purposes. Following the favourable reception of the toolkit at the UN CSW, a request has been made by the European Commission to share learnings from the toolkit with their staff members as part of a wider capacity building process of its staff members on matters of religion and gender equality. Given the recent worldwide events concerning sexual abuse and exploitation, gender inequality and gender pay gaps, calls for a concerted action. There is a real momentum for working together in as wide a movement as possible to tackle these severe inequalities and abuses and to prepare the ground for a world where, in the words of the Brazilian nun Ivone Gebara: Men and women will dwell in their houses; men and women will eat the same bread, drink the same wine, and dance together in the brightly lit square, celebrating the bonds of all humanity.
About the author: Tanja Haque formerly, CAFOD Gender Advisor (2009-2018) and currently working as a consultant for CIDSE promoting the Church and Gender toolkit.