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New Global Alliance Pledges to Fight Religious Extremism

July 7, 2013

The Global Interfaith and Secular Alliance (GISA), a new international alliance of religious and secular groups, has pledged to counteract attempts by religious extremists to influence public policy and limit access to reproductive and sexual health services and resources.

GISA experts from around the world spoke today before a major UN meeting on human rights in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. During the panel “When Religious Extremism Becomes Law,” they discussed how lobbying by religious extremists influences policymakers, and the negative impact this has on global reproductive and sexual health.

The extremists support policies that would deny condoms to those most vulnerable to contracting HIV; restrict access to live-saving medicines and procedures; jail women for having an abortion; and discriminate in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation. In the face of these attacks on women’s rights, GISA unites people of different religions—and of no religion—in support of reproductive and sexual rights.

“Religious extremisms affect policies and the result has always been further oppression of already vulnerable groups,” said Sivananthi Thanenthiran from the Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women. “Most often, these policies aim to control women’s bodies and persecute those who do not perform gender and sexuality roles in ‘acceptable’ or ‘traditional’ ways.”

Thanenthiran gave examples from the Philippines, where access to contraception, even for married people, has been blocked by religious authorities who are politically affiliated. In Malaysia, recent reports from the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality indicate that a state Shariah court handed down a sentence of whipping for men and women who were involved in premarital and extramarital sex, including victim-survivors of incest.

Marieme Helie Lucas, from Women Living Under Muslin Laws and Secularism Is a Women’s Issue, wrote in the current issue of Conscience magazine about counteracting the influence of Muslim extremists. She wrote, “Non-Muslims’ fear of being seen as anti-Islam has been shamelessly exploited by the Muslim religious right in Europe and North America. Muslims, non-Muslim believers and atheists alike should not be intimidated by the fear of being labeled anti-Islamic, and should strongly condemn extreme right opinions passing themselves off as religious.”

Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, reflected on the influence of antichoice forces in Europe. He said that many of the most prominent voices “are more representative of Europe’s past than the average European of the 21st century,” and that while the opposition to reproductive rights in Europe “may not be getting stronger … it is louder and better coordinated than previously assumed.”

Magdalena Lopez from Catholics for Choice discussed the unique position that the hierarchy of the Catholic church holds at the UN itself, where year after year the Holy See has used its influence to restrict support for basic reproductive healthcare services.

“The Holy See’s stance on reproductive health and women’s rights has real life and death consequences, especially in countries with large Catholic populations,” she said. “Recently, events around the world exposed the dire consequences of the Catholic hierarchy’s intrusion into women’s reproductive health with the cases of Savita in Ireland and Beatriz in El Salvador. These two women—one who died, and one who almost died after being denied abortions—represent the countless others who face unnecessary medical complications and even death because of religious extremism.”


The Global Interfaith and Secular Alliance was convened last year by Catholics for Choice and the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW).

GISA will continue to raise awareness, and educate policymakers and the public to ensure policies on sexual and reproductive rights aren’t co-opted by extremists.