Gender and religion must be considered on the way to peace

Research unit established at the University of Helsinki focuses on problems in peace mediation.

Women are often sidelined in peace processes, even when they have significant expertise in attaining lasting peace.

 “When peace mediation focuses on the upper echelons of societies and religious communities, women’s representation and expertise are often ignored,” says Academy Professor Elina Vuola from the Faculty of Theology.

The same shortcoming is occasionally present in religious dialogue, where women are commonly absent as they rarely function as authorities in their religious communities.

Vuola says that the problem has been recognised, but that this is not enough.

 “The parties should recognise that men do not represent all of society, and that they may not even be aware of the impact that conflicts have on women.”

Gender issues challenge peace and conflict studies

There is little fact-based, empirical data on the relationship between gender, conflict and peace in the world.

 “Only a handful of the research institutes and researchers focusing on peace, conflict and religion in different countries consider gender issues a central part of their projects,” says Vuola.

Finland has long had an important role in various peace mediation efforts. The country could make a significant contribution in issues of gender equality.

 “Combining these two topics should be considered a specialty in research and action,” stresses Vuola.

 “And we should not forget that gender issues are also men’s issues. Religious and other radicalisation is most common among young men. Why this is and what could be done about it is a gender issue,” she continues.

Religion invoked for both good and bad

The new Religion, Conflict and Dialogue research unit being established at the University of Helsinki intends to focus on gender issues relating to the role of religion in conflicts and their resolution.

According to Professor Ismo Dunderberg, dean of the Faculty of Theology, there is now great demand for comprehensive, reflective information on religions.  

 “Religions are so pivotal to many cultures that they cannot be ignored in peace work.”

The chair of the delegation representing the project, Member of Parliament Eva Biaudet agrees.

 “Conflicts do not arise in a vacuum. The more we know about the circumstances, worldviews and religions we all hold, the better we are prepared to find the solutions that can defuse polarised positions and put an end to conflicts,” Biaudet states.

 “We as decision-makers also need a better understanding of the role of religions in conflicts and dialogues,” she adds.

In practice, all religions have constructive features, such as respecting humanity and aspiring to truth, which can promote peace between different groups in society. On the other hand, there is a risk that instead of a deeper understanding, religion will spark new conflicts.

 “Religious extremists often have a shockingly low or superficial level of understanding of the holy texts in their own religion. It’s important to prevent the marginalisation of people in religious minorities, as that is often one of the reasons for radicalism,” states Dunderberg.

Terrorism which is seen as “religious” may not even be particularly motivated by religion.

 “An interesting research result concerning the recruitment videos ISIS posts on YouTube is that instead of religion, they focus more on the dream of an Islamic welfare state,” Dunderberg continues.

One-sided media?

In the media, acts of terror are often more interesting than examples of seeking and achieving reconciliation.

Above all, Dunderberg calls for accuracy and equality in the language of media.

 “I recently again began paying attention to how the media has attributed violent attacks on European mosques to ‘local nationalists’. The attacks were not called terrorism, even thought that is exactly what they were.”

 Discussion about terrorism is often based on the rhetoric of “otherness” – “others” commit acts of terror against “us”. If one of “us” attacks “them”, the rhetoric changes.

Information and expertise for decision-makers

The University of Helsinki is about to establish Religion, Conflict and Dialogue, a new multidisciplinary research unit to produce in-depth information about the role of religion in conflicts and their resolution. Gender issues will be a particular focus. The unit builds on the long history that Finland and the other Nordic countries have in international conflict resolution.

The unit will be located at the Faculty of Theology. Nobel laureate President Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) has agreed to be a partner in the project.

Academy Professor Elina Vuola, Dean Ismo Dunderberg and Member of Parliament Eva Biaudet, who chairs the delegation representing the project, visited the United States in late April to strengthen existing cooperation and meet potential new partners.

Read more and support the project >>