Delegation of the European Union to the
UN and other international organisations in Geneva

Safeguarding Freedom of Religion or Belief and Gender Equality

03/03/2020 - 00:00
News stories

The past decade has witnessed continuous challenges in advancing gender equality, protecting and fulfilling women's rights and ending discrimination on any ground, including on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Often, in the name of religion or belief, women and LGBTI persons experience violations of their rights, including sexual reproductive rights, as well as their rights to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and political participation.


Based on the latest report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB), Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva organized a debate to raise attention on the wide range of human rights violations committed against individuals on the basis of their sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in the name of religion or belief. The panellists also discussed ways to address the intersectional discrimination experienced by women and individuals on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

FoRB is a fundamental priority for the European Union and represents a key element of the EU's external human rights policy. This is why the EU leads a FoRB resolution at the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly every year. "The EU firmly opposes when FoRB is invoked to justify human rights violations, including violations affecting women and girls, persons belonging to religious minorities or non-believers, as well as persons on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity," reaffirmed Ambassador Stevens, Head of the EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva. Gender-based violence and discrimination in education, marriage, health and employment constitute additional examples of rights curbed in the name of religion. In some countries, the constitutional framework that provides for a state religion creates tension with and may even obstruct the advancement of gender equality.

"However, there are also very good examples of how religious actors can be a vehicle to foster respect of human rights, as demonstrated by the multitude of voices within religious communities who are advocating for the full enjoyment of all human rights by women, girls and LGBTI persons." stressed EU Ambassador Stevens.

These initiatives were welcomed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed. In his report, the UN expert urges States to repeal gender-based discrimination laws, including those enacted with reference to religious considerations that criminalize adultery; criminalize persons on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity; criminalize abortion in all cases; and facilitate religious practices that violate human rights. There "cannot be a hierarchy of rights so all rights can be protected," stressed Dr. Ahmed Shaheed.

An opinion shared by Mona Rishmawi, Chief of Rule of Law, Equality & Non-Discrimination Branch, OHCHR, who underlined the dichotomy in the question of human rights. She pointed out the "sentiment that if you win on human rights you then lose on local and customary heritage. This is a dichotomy that we need to conquer." For Patricia Melendez, Head of civic Space, Article 19," as religion discrimination includes a gender dimension an engagement of the religious communities is needed." 

The event featured two representatives of religious or belief communities who challenge the misuse or instrumentalisation of religious doctrine. Reverend Brent Hawkes, Founder and Executive Director, Rainbow Faith and Freedom, acknowledged: "religion has caused the problem that religion needs to help fix it." The Reverend underlined that there are religious voices which  support the LGBT community and reminded that religious advocates are risking their lives every day to support LGBT rights.

Alongside the Reverend, Imam Bukuru Elie Khalfan, Vice President of the coalition Muslim for Progressive Values, recalled several Koranic verses highlighting that the freedom of religion is a guarantee for all as well as equality between men and women. The Imam detailed the work conducted in Burundi particularly through the #Imamsforshe campaign where they partnered with local imams on the ground to advocate for women's rights. The campaign also aimed to teach children on the freedom of religion and to promote interfaith dialogue with the youth.

Rewatch the full event on our Facebook page:

Related documents:

EU Guidelines on FoRB
EU Guidelines on Violence against Women and Girls and combating all forms of Discrimination against them
EU Guidelines to promote and protect the enjoyment of all Human Rights by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons

Editorial Sections: