Monday, June 28, marks the beginning of a week of high-level meetings at the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).  Each year, the Annual Ministerial Review (AMR) at ECOSOC is devoted to addressing states’ implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  A thematic review is conducted each year, focusing on one element of the MDGs—poverty, sustainable development, public health, etc.  This year’s thematic focus is “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.”

While I cannot attend the upcoming ECOSOC meetings, I will be following the conversation via webcasts and online policy debates.  My posts over the next three weeks will focus on the ways the terms “religion” and “culture” travel in these debates and discussions.  This week, I’ll be watching the television debate on “Women’s empowerment, development cooperation and culture,” sponsored by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UN Television.

Following these debates and discussions is a part of my dissertation research on gender-based violence (GBV).  I am looking at the ways that violence and healing are defined and navigated by both activists and survivors involved in GBV movements.  As part of my project, I am interested in the ways that religious and human rights practices intersect (intertwining, overlapping, conflicting, etc.) in international and local GBV work.

While in the past women’s human rights activists have admitted a certain skepticism about religion, my recent experience at the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting and the US National Committee for UNIFEM annual meeting tell a slightly different story.  As I heard at several panel discussions, religious organizations are still seen by some as “strange bedfellows” in terms of serving as partners in work related to violence against women.  However, religious actors and organizations are increasingly being invited to the table and “religion” and “culture” are becoming an integral part of the conversation.

This makes me wonder: How and why are (certain) religious organizations labeled as “strange bedfellows” for women’s human rights work?  How are (or are?) religion and culture defined in these conversations?  And how do these understandings of religion or culture (often rooted in a human rights framework that hinges on particular understandings of human autonomy, progress and secularism) differ from the ways that survivors of violence live in relation to their own understandings of religion, culture, and rights?

In short, I’m trying to investigate what a turn to these “strange bedfellows” of religion and culture might actually do for women’s human rights.