Is SDG 5 a problem for religion? Essay

Gillian Paterson PhD, Heythrop College, University of London
2014 saw the 20thanniversary of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed at Cairo in 1994. 2015 will see the ratification of a new set of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of these, a goal’ that is already attracting controversy, especially among religious groups, is SDG 5: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. This essay seeks for light on why this might be.

In recent months, on behalf of the Catholic Network on Population and Development, I have taken part in two international consultations designed to address religious responses to the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the first, in New York in September 2014, we were the guests of UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund), which wants to promote a richer and more collaborative dialogue between religious faiths and the UN’s development policies. The second, hosted by the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, was in Rome, in May 2015. Sponsored by international Catholic women’s organizations, this was part of an attempt by the Holy See to seek the views of Catholic women on how its Mission to the UN should be responding to the SDGs.

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It is hard to imagine two more different gatherings. Nevertheless, the really contentious issues were the same: namely reproductive choice, women’s rights and how the concept of gender is understood. In UN documents, for example, the terms gender’, sexual and reproductive health’ (SRH) and reproductive rights’ (RR) have become a kind of shorthand for a fundamental set of values ratified at ground-breaking international conferences in Beijing and Cairo in the nineties. However, some Catholic participants in Rome expressed reservations about this terminology, some based on a need for more adequate definition of terms, some on principle and some out of an apparent ignorance of the world of development. SDG 5, the gender-related goal, was of special concern, as speaker upon speaker counselled caution in accepting blanket terms such as gender’, SRH’ and RR’: a concern related to the fear that espousing these ill-defined concepts will open doors, by default, to practices the Church could not endorse.
Newcomers to religious gatherings like this expressed astonishment. What, they asked, was the problem? All three of these concepts – gender’, SRH’ and RR’ – are widely used in development circles. Many of the activities they include are uncontroversial in any humanely-motivated gathering (as, for example, the promotion of antenatal services, education for girls, or measures to prevent trafficking and slavery). By demonising the language, they warned, you are at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater: that is, hindering rational and informed discussion, polarising public dialogue, sabotaging work on the ground and undermining global and local planning.

What can be done to resolve this impasse?
First, certain aspects of the dialogue around religion and development need detoxifying, especially in relation to the language of gender. I’ve worked in this field since the mid-eighties, and for most of that time, gender analysis has been widely (and usefully) employed as a sociological tool for analysing the causes of inequalities associated with biological difference between male and female persons. In recent years, though, the emphasis has shifted, leading some to fear that in signing up to gender justice’, gender rights’, or gender equality’, they are being tricked into endorsing an un-catalogued body of ideologically-based beliefs about issues with which the Catholic Church is traditionally uncomfortable such as abortion, surrogacy, gay marriage etc. Thus gender’, which was once a perfectly useful concept, has lately morphed into a kind of catch-all, scapegoat term that takes the blame for everything that does not fit into particular ideals of sexuality and reproduction.
Listening to these painful concerns, it became evident that there was a lack of consensus on the way language is being used and terms defined. Genderissuesmay be taken to refer to LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, intersexed) rights; people may connect genderanalysiswith the need to understand injustices based on sexual orientation, or indeed to deny male/female differences. Helpful as it has been for the language of gender rights to be available to LGBTI campaigners, there is little doubt that this shift of emphasis has undermined its capacity to address justice issues related to the societal consequences of male/female biological difference. In consequence, many people now regard gender’ as an untrustworthy term that can be hi-jacked to mean whatever one wants it to: a fate, incidentally, that is in danger of befalling the language of rights generally.

Uri Davis is a former professor of human rights who now lives and works in Palestine. He has come to believe that “the God-centred master-narrative/paradigm of religious discourse and the Humanity-centred master-narrative/paradigm of human rights discourse are not compatible”[i]. I do not wish to believe that this is true, but I can’t assume he is mistaken just because I find the view unpalatable. Further, it is in the interests of the human race and of our planet that religious and human rights discourses should learn to live together: which means developing spaces where they can dialogue in a spirit of mutual respect, and come together with the humility to recognize the limitations of human understanding, aware that all we can assume, in this life, is that we will know in part and prophesy in part’.
But even if we resign ourselves to knowing only in part’, things can be clearer, the terrain better lit, if we can increase consensus about the language in which we communicate and the terms we are using: in this case, the language of gender; the vexed concepts of sexual and reproductive health; and so-called reproductive rights.

The Catholic Network on Population and Development ( is currently developing a research project that will review ways in which the concepts of ‘gender’, RR’ and SRH’ are commonly used and understood. We seek to identify the coded understandings that underpin these concepts, and then to suggest ways in which such insights might facilitate a deeper engagement between global development discourses and religious (especially Catholic) discourses on gender and reproductive rights’. The intention is to publish this work in some form yet to be decided. If you would like to be involved with this research, please contact me [emailprotected]


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