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A moral issue that challenges us

08 March 2013

The Gospels have a radical message about gender inequality, says Elaine Storkey

GENDER has been very much on the global agenda over the past few weeks. The "One Billion Rising" demonstrations across the world on St Valentine's Day focused attention on violence against women, and called for governments to give this matter priority over the coming year. The vision of a world where women and men experience equal respect and freedom from harm is crucial - and an essential part of Christian redemptive hope.

The same vision was behind a less public gathering that I had attended earlier. Gender equality, respect, and freedom were again central, but here the context was different. The Emerging Markets Symposium met quietly in Oxford, under Chatham House Rules, drawing together global economists, politicians, and academics to explore strategies towards greater gender equality.

This symposium was formed some years ago around the belief that the social and economic challenges faced by the middle-income emerging markets - China, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Turkey - are different from those that face both advanced and economically poor countries. So it encourages practitioners and theorists to share research and experience.

This was very true in the area of gender. A former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, who chaired the symposium, articulated it succinctly: "Gender inequality is morally wrong, bad economics, and bad for business."

I was interested that the gathering included those for whom gender was unexplored terrain, as well as those who had done years of empirical work in the area. Yet, as we pored over economic statistics, looked at growth and innovation, and discussed issues of production and reproduction, there was extraordinary unanimity in interpreting what we uncovered.

We found that although the 22 countries identified as emerging markets are very different from each other, they overlapped in their patterns of gender inequality. Women staff were paid less than equally qualified male peers, they were under-represented in corporate hierarchies, and domestic duties often cut short women's education and training. We also found that, when countries did become more gender-inclusive, they enjoyed faster growth and less political instability.

Economic and development factors, however, are always interwoven with deep cultural and religious attitudes. Take the dowry. Ostensibly an economic transaction between families, it carries with it assumptions of value and ownership. And when we reflected on "bride-burning" (where a bride is killed by her husband, or husband's family, owing to his dissatisfaction over the dowry), or female trafficking, we inevitably moved into the same moral territory as the St Valentine's Day marches.

Even though many of the symposium's participants were avowed secularists, the organisers had included in the programme an examination of the impact of religion. Of a global population of seven million, almost six million are affiliated to a faith tradition. My own contribution, as a Christian, sought to open up the radical nature of the Christian gospel for gender equality, and to identify both the failures and the faithfulness of the global Church.

The acknowledgement that faith traditions have something to contribute to a discourse on gender was encouraging. And I found delegates ready to engage with theological issues with rigour. Yet it leaves a bigger challenge for the Church, not just to proclaim God's calling to gender justice and empowerment, but to live it out in our practices and communities: celebrating women's calling in the home, the workplace, the pulpit - and the House of Bishops.

Dr Elaine Storkey is President of Tearfund.

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