Harnessing Religions to Advance Well-Being of Children
By Kul C. Gautam, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF
(Copyright: IPS Columnist Service)
KATHMANDU, Mar 2 (IPS) It has been said that religion is like fire: it can be used to cook a neighbourhood feast, but it can also be used to burn down your neighbour’s house. All the great religions of the world preach love, peace, brotherhood, solidarity, and compassion. Yet far too many crimes are committed, acts of injustice justified, harmful traditional practices perpetuated, and intolerance and even hatred propagated in the name of religion. Not long ago, we saw religious leaders in parts of Nigeria discouraging children from being vaccinated against polio, which led to a massive outbreak of the disease not just in Nigeria but in many other countries of Africa and beyond.
We saw The Lords Resistance Army in northern Uganda committing unspeakable violence against thousands of children in the name of their Lord. In many societies religion and tradition are invoked to justify child marriage, polygamy, female genital mutilation, the shunning and ostracising of widows, and even the recruitment of children to fight Holy Wars.
On the other hand, throughout history many religious leaders have been the apostles of virtue and good deeds, and protectors and guardians of the weak, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. Many faith-based organisations provide services to the needy in areas government and secular services do not reach, from tending to the sick, sheltering the homeless, educating the minorities, and defending the oppressed.
Historically the United Nations system, as an inter-governmental organisation of largely secular states, has kept a certain distance from religious organisations, but lately it too has discovered their positive power and potential. Many faith-based organisations are accredited with the UN and seek mutually-beneficial collaboration with UN agencies. Currently the UN is actively promoting a dialogue among civilisations, seeking partnership with the world’s major religions.
There are many examples of beneficial partnerships between UN agencies and various religions. For example, one of the most influential partners of UNICEF in promoting child survival in Latin America has been the Catholic Church. Churches in Colombia, Brazil, and elsewhere encouraged parents to ensure that their children were immunised, just as they ensure they were baptised. In a historic first, the Catholic Church and UNICEF collaborated to secure a cease-fire in El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s, and launched ‘Days of Tranquillity’ to immunise and protect children. This has now become a common practice in many war-torn countries.
In several countries of the Mekong sub-region of Asia, WHO, UNICEF, and UNAIDS worked productively with Buddhist monks and nuns to spread the message of compassion and caring for people living with HIV/AIDS.
In the Islamic world, UNICEF collaborated with Al Azhar University and other centres of learning to produce a booklet on Child Care in Islam showing how the authentic teachings of Islam are consistent with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Childhood is considered sacred and needing special protection by all the world’s major religions. Yet, in practice, the power and influence of religions is not invoked adequately for the well-being of children. The Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) was established to do precisely this. Founded by a visionary Japanese Buddhist leader and supported by the Arigatou Foundation, GNRC’s mission is to harness the deepest moral and spiritual beliefs and teachings of all the world’s religions for the well-being of children and for the defense of their rights.
In May 2008, GNRC is organising a major world forum in Hiroshima, Japan, under the broad theme of “Learning to Share: Values, Action, Hope.” The Forum, to be attended by hundreds of leaders from the world’s major religious traditions, educators, the media, senior officials, and experts from the United Nations system, as well as young people themselves, will seek to strengthen the commitment of the world’s religions to secure the rights and enhance the well-being of children around the world.
Specifically, the Forum will deal with the three major ethical imperatives of our times: ending violence against children, ensuring that no child lives in poverty, and empowering children to protect our planet. These are among the most transcendental of human challenges that confront the world today.
A harmonious and productive partnership among the world’s major religions, governments, and civil society and international organisations is probably the most powerful key to addressing these challenges to create a child-friendly world order that has eluded us so far. Religious leaders are by nature expert communicators and opinion leaders, accustomed to translating complex texts into understandable messages. They could be of enormous help to governments and international agencies that are often criticised for being bureaucratic, opaque, and ineffective in their communication for behaviour change. Together, the moral and ethical influence of the world’s religions, the resources of the world’s governments, the normative role of UN agencies, and the people power of civil society would be a formidable alliance for reaching the Millennium Development Goals, safeguarding human rights, ensuring human security, and building a world that is truly fit for all children.