Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

My thanks to the organizers, Religions for Peace, Ring for Peace, and the German Federal Foreign Office, for the opportunity to address you this evening.

Our discussion takes place against the backdrop of several unfolding crises in which women’s rights and physical security are in peril. Right now, the eyes of the world are on Afghanistan, where women and women’s rights defenders are navigating the new reality of a return to Taliban rule. The hard-won gains of the past two decades risk being ripped away and thrown into reverse. This is starkly illustrated by last month’s decision to replace the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with a “Ministry of Vice and Virtue”, recalling the dark days of the Taliban’s “moral policing”.

I have just come from the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where upheavals from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, from Yemen to Syria, were squarely in focus. The theme of the general debate was “Building resilience through hope”, in the context of pandemic recovery, sustainable development, and realizing human rights. The aim was to remind us all that we can choose the future we want. We can choose solidarity over division; empathy over extremism; equality over exclusion.

In pursuit of these goals, religious leaders have the potential to mobilize all sectors of society. As trusted actors with broad networks and deep roots in communities, religious leaders and faith-based organizations can build bridges rather than walls. Specifically, they can help to break down the walls of silence that surround sexual and gender-based crimes – walls that are built with bricks of stigma, shame and victim-blame – that imprison survivors for life, while perpetrators walk free.

My mandate, as Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, was created by the Security Council to serve as United Nations spokesperson and political advocate in combatting war’s oldest and most enduring scourge. Rape has a hidden history, due to deeply entrenched social taboos. Yet, no problem in human history has ever been solved through silence. In addition to political will on the part of the State, the willingness of religious leaders to use their moral authority to help silence the guns and amplify the voices of women, can help to turn the tide. Religious authorities have often played a role in countering incitement to violence by spreading messages of tolerance, and by urging restraint on the part of arms bearers. They have provided sanctuary to vulnerable civilians in places of worship; they have promoted reconciliation as part of the consolidation of peace. Preventing and addressing conflict-related sexual violence is one of the great moral challenges of our time. I am therefore working to expand the circle of allies and champions united in common cause to translate political promises into tangible progress where women live and work – in marketplaces and schools; at waterpoints and polling booths. Conflict-related sexual violence is not a problem to be borne by the victim alone; it is a social problem that requires a whole-of-society response. Sexual violence is the only weapon of war that is both powered by, and perpetuates, gender inequality. Like all violence, it begins in the mind. To disarm this weapon, we must demobilize the mindsets that breed and normalize misogyny.

I would like to highlight a few concrete examples of collaboration between my mandate and religious leaders, which may be instructive as we reflect on the way forward in Afghanistan and beyond:

  • When I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2017, I met with members of the Bosnian Interreligious Council, which used its reach and influence to foster solidarity with survivors of wartime rape. The Council issued a public declaration denouncing the stigmatization of survivors and children born of rape, to improve their status in society and prevent the intergenerational transmission of trauma. They urged all religious officials in the region – Imams, Priests and Rabbis alike – to serve as a force for healing in communities polarized by the legacy of war.
  • In 2018, my Office supported the launch of a “Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes”. This plan aims to support religious leaders to develop context-specific strategies to curb hate speech, propaganda, incitement and violence, as part of wider diplomatic efforts.
  • During my visits to refugee camps in Bangladesh, I heard harrowing accounts of sexual violence committed in cold blood out of a lethal hatred for the Rohingya minority, based on their ethnicity and religion. Following the military coup in Myanmar, religious leaders have expressed solidarity with democratic protestors, allowing temples and Pagodas to be used as gathering places, and religious charities have provided assistance to activists. There are signs that solidarity has begun to extend to the long-persecuted Rohingya minority, who deserve full citizenship rights.
  • In Iraq, former Yazidi spiritual leader Baba Sheikh called for his community to support, rather than ostracize, women who had escaped ISIL captivity. Altering tradition in this way provided a source of solace to many rape survivors who had felt that suicide was their only option. This complemented the formal agreement my Office signed with the Government of Iraq on the Prevention and Response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, helping to facilitate socioeconomic reintegration.
  • In 2016, my mandate signed a Framework of Cooperation with the League of Arab States to foster regional cooperation in efforts to shift the shame and stigma of sexual violence from the victims to the perpetrators. This framework placed particular emphasis on the role of civil society, including religious, traditional, and faith-based leaders, in helping to ensure that survivors are accepted back into their communities, rather than rejected and retraumatized.
  • Syria provides a dramatic illustration of what is at stake in an intensely sectarian conflict where religious intolerance is rife. Before the war, primary school enrolment was almost universal; now we are witnessing a generation of children at risk of receiving no education at all, with girls being confined to their homes or married young in an attempt to “shield” them from harm. This year marks a decade of conflict, which has reduced a middle-income country to rubble; claimed over 350,000 lives; propelled the world’s largest refugee crisis; and unleashed waves of sexual violence committed with impunity by parties to the conflict.
  • In South Sudan, another priority country for my mandate, religious actors were involved in the 2018 peace talks, and played an important mediation role. The South Sudan Council of Churches has collaborated closely with United Nations actors on the ground, housing and supporting hundreds of women and girls who had been abducted by combatants and held for many months on military bases, where they were subjected to repeated abuse. Religious leaders also issued a declaration denouncing sexual violence and calling for accountability. Further to this declaration, they conducted a nation-wide sensitization campaign aimed to change harmful social norms and foster support networks to ease the reintegration of survivors and their children.
  • In the Central African Republic, certain religious leaders have supported the national dialogue for peace and denounced hate speech and sectarian divides, helping to de-escalate tensions.
  • In other contexts, however, our work faces opposition from religious and traditional leaders. In Somalia, efforts to pass a robust Sexual Offenses Bill have met with pushback from Islamic scholars seeking to lower the age of marriage contrary to Somalia’s human rights commitments. Sexual violence cases are rarely prioritized for prosecution, being often referred to traditional justice mechanisms, which tend to privilege the interests of the community over the welfare of the victim. Different legal systems operate in parallel, often resulting in the release of suspected perpetrators from police custody following interventions by traditional leaders.
  • Similarly, in Mali, conservative religious leaders have publicly opposed the passage of new legislation criminalizing gender-based violence. This highlights the need to mobilize a broad constituency, from both the formal and informal spheres, to promote social change.

History demonstrates that religion can be a vector of violence, or a force for peace. Equally, religious leaders can be obstacles to progress, or agents of change. Religious diplomacy can help to counter extremism, hate speech, stigma, and harmful social norms. Faith-based organizations on the frontlines are often trusted actors in the humanitarian response, at a time when distrust in the State may be high, and institutional capacity may be low. They also have a unique understanding of local dynamics related to conflict, power and gender, at a time when international access may be constrained. Strategic partnerships are thus critical to unlock access, resources, and local knowledge to address the root causes and drivers of violence. A holistic, whole-of-society approach to diplomacy is needed, taking faith into account as a relevant force in foreign relations.

Religious leaders can support women’s organizations; vocally divest extremists of the mantle of religious legitimacy they crave; call into question the dichotomy between religious and secular worldviews; and foster broad-based ownership of human rights norms. They can underscore that that physical integrity and bodily autonomy are not “favors” to be granted or withheld. They are the universal inheritance and birth right of every human being. They can co-create solutions with survivors, in ways that validate them as actors, rather than relegate them to the status of passive beneficiaries. And they can role-model inclusion and respect.

In the case of Afghanistan, shortly after their August take-over, the Taliban convened religious leaders to set out guidelines about religious instruction for the nation’s Imams and teachers. This conference focused on the “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice”. Not one woman was present. Similarly, the Taliban’s “interim administration” includes no women. Women’s rights are the litmus test against which any governing authority must be judged. When women are excluded from government, their roles in all sectors of society are called into question. Religious leaders in Afghanistan, as elsewhere, are not monolithic in their views. Despite regression at the national-level, some religious figures at the local-level have taken steps to defend women’s rights within an Islamic framework. Religious leaders are among Afghanistan’s traditional “gate-keepers” for local decision-making, and moderate voices can be constructively engaged.

Every step forward for women’s rights is also a small victory in the fight against fundamentalism. This is not just a question of winning a war, but of winning the future. Women have been shown to be a buffer against youth radicalization and repeated cycles of violence. Indeed, our best hope for winning the future is to enable the next generation to be raised under the influence of educated and empowered mothers, rather than under the shadow of extremism.

Long after the guns have fallen silent, and the ink has dried on a peace agreement, the trauma of rape persists. I therefore call on all religious leaders, from all faiths, to use their reach and influence to help replace horror with healing and hope. Our collective conscience and common humanity demand it.

Thank you.