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Keep Her in Your Prayers

Why the Involvement of Religious Leaders and Organizations Matter in Protecting and Empowering Women in Society during the COVID-19

On June 4th, 2020, the 1000 Abrahamic Circles project under the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia held its third event that addresses the issue of gender equity and women empowerment titled “Keep Her in Your Prayers: Why the Involvement of Religious Leaders and Organizations Matter in Protecting and Empowering Women in Society during the COVID-19.” This is also a final event to wrap up its public discussion series, “Religion in a time of COVID-19.”

Around the world, COVID-19 has not only exposed the vulnerabilities in our social, political, and economic systems, but it also has indirectly deepened the existing gender inequalities between men and women. From a surge in domestic violence to the lack of economic and social protections, women have been continuously facing hardships on a daily basis. At the same time, religious organizations have become one of the vanguard in supporting and protecting women’s needs, especially during these times of crisis. The discussion invited Dr. Livia Istania DF Iskandar, M.Sc., Psi, Vice Chairwoman of Indonesian Agency for Victims and Witness Protection (LPSK), Rahmawati Hussein, Vice Chairwoman of Muhammadiyah Disaster Management Center, Reverend Kristi, Coordinator of Srikandi Lintas Iman and Nancy Mitchell, WE Empower Consultant at UN Women. The event was moderated by Indonesian women’s activist and stand-up comic, Sakdiyah Ma’ruf.

On the social and cultural front, a surge in domestic violence during this pandemic has worsened the state of gender based violence around the world. Dr. Livia Iskandar opened the discussion by talking about the rise of sexual abuse cases in March - April during the COVID-19, which hit the number 20 cases. As a result, LPSK have been busy with their work in ensuring that witnesses and victims of crimes can safely testify in the criminal justice system without feeling threatened. As sexual abuse cases happened not only in households, but also in schools and other public institutions, LPSK is also working with third parties such as women empowerment child protection agencies, legal aid foundations, service providers women's crisis centers and including Catholic nuns and fathers to provide protection in religious boarding schools. Dr. Livia Iskandar also added that an internal regulation within religious organizations or in boarding schools to manage sexual violence prevention and sexual reproductive health is very important to be put in placed to provide a safer environment for the public, women and children who shelter in their religious comunity as a victim of domestic violance and such.

The discussion then followed by the presentation from Rahmawati Hussein where she explained the health impact of COVID-19 to women, especially those who are working in the health sector. During this pandemic, women are the most threatened because in Muhammadiyah itself, its 473 hospitals and clinics are employing women for around 70% of its health professionals. Furthermore, with the lack of distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Muhammadiyah has lost 3 nurses because of the COVID-19. Consequently, the role of Faith-Based Organizations (FBO) are especially critical during this time because they use their moral authority to advocate for the empowerment of women, access to education and health facilities, and to address violence against women. Reverend Kristi continued the discussion on the role of women in faith-based organizations and interfaith initiatives in contributing to gender mainstreaming by strengthening the bond of sisterhood and interfaith collaborations to address social issues. She highlighted the fact that women are often left behind in interfaith works and the peacebuilding process, when women actually have a very important role in initiating dialogue and developing solidarity. Especially during these uncertain times, initiating solidarity is very crucial to be conducted amongst women from different religious backgrounds, not only to provide protection but also to fight against the many racial and religious biased messages. Srikandi Lintas Iman, is working to achieve those objectives through workshops and seminars such as on conflict resolution and early childhood education.

Last but not least, Nancy Mitchell explained about her current work with the WE Empower program, a joint initiative between the UN Women, UN Women European Union and the International Labor Organization. WE Empower work in addressing responsible business conduct including women’s economic empowerment in the workplace and marketplace and gender equality in G7 countries. As also explained in the previous presentations, Mitchell explained the correlation between economic insecurity and domestic violence. As the number of unemployment and partners staying at home increases, it has affected women in abusive situations which led to a spike in a cycle of domestic violence cases. Globally women spend approximately three times more time on unpaid domestic and care work than men but across Asia in the Pacific this figure can be up to 11 times. Even when domestic and care work put a lot of physical and a mental toll on women and are critical for sustaining societies, it often went unrecognized. This is why to include women in both the macro and micro level response plans are highly crucial to ensure women’s protection and gender equity. Religion in this case could play a fundamental role in incorporating the message of gender equality and to work together with relevant institutions because it can significantly impact many lives.

At the core of the discussion, speakers and moderator agreed that they hope the discussion could act as a call to action for society to change their perception and to put women at the centre of not only health and economic recovery but also social and political issues. Policymakers should also take this into account and ensure inclusivity and diversity. As Dr. Livia Iskandar said during the discussion:

“Global women’s leadership during COVID-19 has been effective, unfortunately the number of global women’s leaders is not enough and we need to increase that. We need to learn from what is being done correctly at the global level and implement it locally and nationally.”

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