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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development

Faith-Based Organizations and Service Delivery: Some Gender Conundrums



This paper deals specifically with faith-based organizations (FBOs) delivering services with the aim of contributing to the debates on religious organizations’ engagement with questions of gender. The paper presents no conclusions or generic findings about this heterogeneous group of actors; instead, by flagging a series of conundrums, it questions the ways in which FBOs have been framed as positive agents for the advancement of gender equality.

The first conundrum is the difficulty in sometimes determining the nature of an FBO’s gender agenda, because often a single organization takes different standpoints on various gender issues. The second conundrum is the complex way in which some FBOs provide women with a range of spiritual and social activities while at the same time delineating the ways in which they are expected to exercise their agency. The third conundrum lies in the fact that, while many FBOs may indeed be working successfully at the grassroots level, this does not necessarily mean that they all emerge from within the community or that they are necessarily “indigenous”. The fourth conundrum has to do with the dilemmas women face when the extension of services and assistance is conditional on their conforming to the FBOs’ interpretation of religiously appropriate gender roles and behaviour. Without generalizing for all service-providing FBOs, ethnographic studies nonetheless suggest that, in some instances, services are used overtly or more subtly as a means of seeking to inculcate religious values and ideologies. Often, controlling women’s behaviour becomes a symbol of conformity to religious ideology. While women are the targets of many such processes, they are not simply repositories of doctrines and ideologies and often engage in acts of subversion as well as covert and overt forms of contestations.

The methodological approach followed is qualitative. The paper relies on an analysis of secondary sources on FBOs affiliated to both organized religion and faith movements that have contested their orthodoxies. The literature analysed encompasses FBOs operating in different countries and regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and the United States. The paper also draws on the author’s ethnographic fieldwork in one of Cairo’s poorest urban settlements with a high density of religious organizations. The fieldwork was conducted between 2000 and 2007, supplemented with interviews conducted in Yemen in 2006 and in Cairo in 2009.

The paper argues that, due to the complexity and variation in FBOs, there is a need for caution in drawing policy recommendations applicable to all faith-based actors engaged in service delivery. How faith expresses itself vis-à-vis gender issues will vary along the personal belief system of the leadership, those of the practitioners, the context in which they work, the extent of vulnerability and dependence of their constituency on their services as well as other contextual factors (such as the state’s political ideology on gender issues). In some cases FBOs’ agendas are closely tied to those of organized religious establishments, while in others they are in direct contestation. In the light of this, in some contexts, it may be possible to engage with faith leaders of organizations delivering services to advance gender agendas, while in others such an assumption is naive in that it does not take into account the power politics behind how agendas are framed.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 25 Oct 2010
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1994-8026
    From: UNRISD