Global gender gap: Women, faith-based aid and development

(Photo by World Bank Photo Collection under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence)

A growing number of organizations are cultivating connections between religion and development and are using those links to empower women, who are key to promoting economic and social advancement in less-developed societies. In fact, a September 2010 United Nations summit made closing that global gender gap a priority.


The meeting at the U.N. headquarters in New York focused on advancing the world body’s Millennium Development Goals, which were adopted early in the new millennium with the aim of sharply reducing poverty and disease in much of the developing world by 2015.

One of the goals was gender equality, based on the premise that advancing women by ensuring their education and workforce participation also advances a culture. Improving maternal health was another woman-centered Millennium Development Goal; in some countries, one woman in eight will die giving birth.

The U.N. Millennium Project was commissioned by the U.N. secretary-general in 2002 and headed by economist Jeffrey Sachs. Its purpose was to develop a plan to alleviate severe poverty, hunger and disease in less-developed parts of the globe. It presented the plan Investing in Development in 2005, and its work is being continued by a support team under the U.N. Development Program. The project also produced a gender equality report.

Those who work to promote economic and social development in less-developed societies are looking not only at religion as a cultural force but more specifically at the influence of religion on cultural expectations for women and girls — and faith communities are becoming players in this complex global network of interrelationships.

The linkage of women, faith and development is relatively new and underreported, particularly because so much of the action takes place abroad. Yet you can easily bring the story home by seeking out congregations or other faith-based local bodies such as relief and development agencies that do mission work or overseas outreach. Ask them how their efforts target women.

Many faith groups already have relief and development bodies working overseas; nongovernmental organizations, commonly called NGOs, are also gaining more influence. New coalitions have begun to emerge to unite forces from within development, women’s and faith constituencies, building upon a greater sensitivity to faith as a force that must be reckoned with and can be mobilized. These coalitions use structures and relationships already in place; in less-developed areas of the world, faith groups already have infrastructure and credibility. New efforts using those networks are targeting women in a variety of ways, working on violence against women, maternal health, access to education and economic empowerment.

HIV prevention and effective poverty reduction are priorities for faith groups and their partners in Africa and Asia, for example. A focus on poverty reduction frequently involves some effort to empower women economically, and microfinance -– small loans to individual entrepreneurs –- is rapidly growing in popularity and volume. Local faith groups may be involved in microfinance loans to women entrepreneurs or may sell crafts made overseas.

These small, grass-roots efforts fit within the larger picture of work by transnational groups that have the wherewithal and network to use gender as a way of promoting development.

Find out if people of faith in your area are involved in a debate about what is the best way to empower those in less-developed cultures. Short-term mission work abroad is common, but a common criticism is that it does more for those who do it than those who receive it, because it gives fish instead of teaching people how to catch them. Talk to local congregations about this debate about empowerment and poverty reduction and where women fit in and how they are involved.

News articles and research

International sources: Faith-based relief and development agencies

  • The Baptist World Alliance

    The Baptist World Alliance is a network of 228 churches in 120 countries that works to promote the church’s ministry and works around the world in various aid areas.

  • Covenant World Relief

    Covenant World Relief is the Evangelical Covenant Church’s philanthropic arm that has worked in five continents on community issue projects and disaster relief. Some efforts include working with women in human sex trafficking, building micro-loans for women’s small businesses and developing their agricultural skills.

    Contact: 773-784-3000.
  • Global Ministries

    Global Ministries is the United Methodist Church’s missionary arm that has worked in 60 countries around the world. Its missions have included providing educational resources to women.

  • International Orthodox Christian Charities

    International Orthodox Christian Charities has provided humanitarian assistance through some of the most troubled decades in recent history. Specifically, it is the international humanitarian organization of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas.  It is based in Baltimore and has programs in several African countries.

  • Lutheran World Relief

    Lutheran World Relief works in 35 countries on issues such as water accessibility, disaster relief and supporting women’s businesses.

    Contact: 410-230-2761.
  • World Renew

    World Renew, formerly called the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, of Grand Rapids, Mich., is a grant recipient under a government contract. Its programs in Africa promote faithfulness and abstinence.

  • World Vision

    World Vision is a Christian relief and development agency working on poverty reduction worldwide. World Vision president Richard Stearns’ book The Hole in Our Gospel won the 2010 Christian Book of the Year award. One focus of its work is sustainable development, including microfinance — it opened a microlending website this spring and has already attracted $385,000 and made more than 1,250 loans — and women’s and girls’ issues.

National sources


  • Mayra Buvinic

    Mayra Buvinic is sector director for gender and development at the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network of the World Bank. She was a founding member and president of the International Center for Research on Women. Contact her through the bank’s media division in Washington, D.C.

    Contact: 202-473-4306.
  • Jean Duff

    Jean Duff is executive director of the Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty. CIFA was one of four co-convening agencies that brought faith, women’s and foreign development groups together in 2008 to work in the Women, Faith and Development Alliance for women and girls. The 2008 gathering was the occasion to announce $1.4 billion in commitments to programs; $600 million has been spent so far. Duff can speak about the history of collaboration and the variety of initiatives under way that mobilize the power of the faith community to benefit women and girls. Contact her through Benjamin Bechtolsheim at CIFA.

  • Katherine Marshall

    Katherine Marshall is executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue and senior fellow and visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, leading the Program on Religion and Global Development. She is an expert on international development issues and advises the World Bank, where she once worked.

  • Martha C. Nussbaum

    Martha C. Nussbaum holds appointments in law, divinity and philosophy at the University of Chicago, where she is the Ernest Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics. Her wide-ranging interests include contemporary moral and political philosophy, the history of Western philosophy and the nature of emotions. She is the author of Liberty of Conscience: The Attack on America’s Tradition of Religious Equality.

Organizations and programs

  • Bread for the World

    Bread for the World is the largest faith-based advocacy movement against hunger, a collective of Christian groups. It posts hunger facts and figures. It is based in Washington, D.C.

  • The Center for Interfaith Action

    The Center for Interfaith Action targets global poverty and describes its work as “operating at the intersection of faith and development.” Its initiatives include the Women, Faith and Development Alliance. CIFA also has its own new gender program. Contact Margaux Bergen, director of communications and development.

  • EndItNow

    EndItNow is a global campaign to stop violence against women. The campaign is sponsored by the women’s ministry department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency. Contact through the website.

  • The Grameen Foundation

    The Grameen Foundation helps the world’s poorest people access financial services and technology, especially women. Director emeritus Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank and was the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his work with Grameen. P

    Contact: 202-628-3560.
  • InterAction

    InterAction is an alliance of U.S.-based NGOs working in the world’s developing countries; many member groups are faith-based. Gender equality is one of its issues of concern; it is one of the conveners of the Women, Faith and Development Alliance. Burt Edwards is director of communications.

  • The International Center for Research on Women

    The International Center for Research on Women works on a wide variety of issues of importance to women in Asia and East Africa. Press contact is Jeannie Bunton, vice president of external relations.

  • Kiva

    Kiva is a microfinance network that connects individual lenders to individual entrepreneurs in developing countries. The majority of Kiva borrowers are women. Kiva blends the microfinance, small loan model with Internet technology to create relationships between lenders and those who get loans. Many lenders and teams of lenders are associated with local religious congregations.

    Contact: 828-479-5482.
  • Opportunity International

    Opportunity International is a microfinance ministry based in suburban Chicago working on expanding economic opportunities in developing countries. It includes a Women’s Opportunity Network. Mark Lutz, senior vice president, global philanthropy, is author of the 2010 book Unpoverty: Rich Lessons from the Working Poor. Media contact is Robert Meloche.

    Contact: 630-242-4167, 800-793-9455.
  • The United Nations Development Fund for Women

    The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) is dedicated to advancing women’s rights and gender equality. It works on implementing international commitments at national levels. Media contact is Oisika Chakrabarti.

    Contact: 646 781-4400.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • William F. Fisher

    William F. Fisher is director of the Program for International Development, Community and Environment at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. He is an expert in global civil society and transnational advocacy.

  • Albino F. Barrera

    The Rev. Albino F. Barrera is a Catholic priest and professor of theology and economics at Providence College in Providence, R.I. He is the author of the 2006 book God and the Evil of Scarcity: Moral Foundations of Economic Agency and the 2005 book Economic Compulsion and Christian Ethics.

  • Timothy Patrick Moran

    Timothy Patrick Moran is a sociologist at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University with expertise in globalization and inequality.

    Contact: 631-632-4311.
  • Suzanne Toton

    Suzanne Toton is an associate professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova (Pa.) University. One of her specialties is development ethics.

    Contact: 610-519-7428.

In the South

  • Hugh LaFollette

    Hugh LaFollette is the Cole Chair in Ethics at professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He co-authored Brute Science: Dilemmas of Animal Experimentation and has written extensively on gun control and other issues.

  • Douglas A. Hicks

    Douglas A. Hicks is is provost and dean of the faculty of Colgate University, in Hamilton, New York. Hicks is an ordained Presbyterian minister and author of Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership (Cambridge University, 2003). He is a leading commentator on issues of faith and work and can speak to the impact of the growing presence of women in the marketplace.

  • Emmanuel Katongole

    Emmanuel Katongole is associate professor of theology and world Christianity at Duke (University) Divinity School. He was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in his native country of Uganda. He is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at the divinity school, and is author of the book The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa.

  • Rebecca Todd Peters

    Rebecca Todd Peters is an associate professor of religious studies at Elon University in North Carolina. She is involved in a globalization project of the World Council of Churches and teaches a course on wealth and poverty.

    Contact: 336-278-5247.
  • Douglas Meeks

    Douglas Meeks, Cal Turner Chancellor professor of theology and Wesleyan studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., has written about the economy and the future of liberation theology in North America.

In the Midwest

  • Scott Bessenecker

    Scott Bessenecker is associate director of missions for Global Projects at Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in Madison, Wis. As a member of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, the organization sends teams of students to work with African churches in Kenya, Uganda and Ghana on short-term projects. Contact  him via the website.

    Contact: 608-274-9001.
  • Chris Heuertz

    Chris Heuertz is international executive director of Word Made Flesh, which works with the world’s vulnerable people. He lives in Omaha, Neb.

  • Greg R. Taylor

    Greg R. Taylor is lead minister of the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Okla. He spent six years working in Uganda and recently returned there for a visit and to bring a well kit to provide clean water. He co-wrote How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missionsblogs and can speak about the changing ideas behind mission work and development efforts and economic empowerment of women in Africa. Contact him at the church.

    Contact: 918-663-3000.

In the West

  • The Institute of Halal Investing

    The Institute of Halal Investing in Portland, Ore., can provide an Islamic perspective on microfinance and development assistance. It is associated with Rubicon Global, a halal financial advisory firm.

  • Miguel A. De La Torre

    Miguel A. De La Torre teaches social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he directs the school’s Justice and Peace Institute. Issues he can discuss include religion’s effects on class/race/gender oppression, Santeria, Cuba and liberation theology. His numerous books include, as co-editor, Rethinking Latino(a) Religion and Identity and Handbook of Latina/o Theologies.

  • Pamela K. Brubaker

    Pamela K. Brubaker is professor emeritus of religion at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. She wrote the article “Making Women and Children Matter: Feminist Ethics Confronts Welfare Policy” for the Journal of Poverty (1999) and the book Women Don’t Count: The Challenge of Women’s Poverty to Christian Ethics (Scholars Press, 1994). [email protected]

    She has written about globalization, women and justice.

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