Report on the Status of Women in the Baha'i Community


Report on the Status of Women in the Baha'i Community

Response to a questionnaire received from the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, summarized in the magazine "Women 2000"

Vienna, Austria—1 May 1990

Main activity area:

The Baha'i International Community, an international NGO with 151 national affiliates and over 20,000 local affiliates, is engaged in promoting world peace and encouraging the spiritual, social and economic development of its communities throughout the world. The foundation of Baha'i activity is the unshakable consciousness of the oneness of the human race, a principle which implies a fundamental transformation of all human relationships, including those between women and men. For Baha'is, the achievement of full equality between the sexes is one of the most important though least acknowledged prerequisites of peace.

General description of activities with regard to the status and advancement of women:

The emancipation of women is viewed by Baha'is as an evolutionary process, requiring sufficient time to shed long-held traditional attitudes and adopt more unifying patterns of life. Baha'i communities at all levels -- local, national and international -- encourage this process through programmes and activities to advance the status of women.

Baha'i institutions encourage the full participation of women in every aspect of community life, including development planning and decision making; promote equal education for girls and boys, as well as social and economic development projects to meet the needs of women; and foster sexual equality both within the Baha'i community and in society at large through communications media and through a wide range of activities, including conferences, women's consultative groups, seminars and workshops.

The Baha'i International Community participated fully in the activities of the UN Decade for Women. Its representatives attend sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women and serve on the NGO Committees on the Status of Women in New York, Geneva and Vienna.

Current activity in this area receiving priority attention, aim of this activity, results achieved so far:

1. Equal participation:

Since equal participation by women in every aspect of community life is a goal of all Baha'i institutions, Baha'i communities at every level are committed to increasing the number of women appointed to advisory boards and elected to governing councils and to involving all women in community consultation -- the broad, inclusive process by which Baha'i communities make plans and decisions. Women's consultative groups, for example are being established to educate women and encourage them to participate equally with men in building just and peaceful communities.

Results: Recent statistics show substantial participation of women on Baha'i administrative bodies. In 1988, 27% of those elected to serve on national governing councils were women. In 1989, 25% of the members of continental advisory boards and 29% of their auxiliary boards were women. At the 1988 International Convention, plenary sessions involving members of over 140 National Baha'i Councils were chaired by women members of the advisory boards.

2. Literacy training:

Literacy training for women and girls, a focal activity for many years in Baha'i communities, has been made a global priority in the Baha'i International Community six-year development plan (1986-1992). Further, in 1989 the international Baha'i governing body urged each national and local Baha'i council to lend active support to International Literacy Year (ILY) and address the objective of eliminating illiteracy from the worldwide Baha'i community. A major aim of Baha'i literacy classes, which are open to the entire community, is to empower women, both in their traditional roles as mothers and educators of children, and in their new roles as full participants in the advancement of their communities and the world.

2.1 New projects:

New literacy projects for women, initiated at the grass roots in response to ILY, demonstrate the dynamics of the Baha'i development process. First, the Baha'i international governing council establishes a priority (International Literacy Year) and calls for action; this call, in turn, catalyzes a variety of national and local initiatives; these initiatives are then supported by international and national resources and coordination. In Cameroon, for example, eight Baha'is volunteered to teach literacy and requested that the national Baha'i governing council help them obtain materials. In Zimbabwe, several Baha'i women have been trained by the government to teach literacy through a permanent institute sponsored by the national Baha'i council. In Malawi, six schools founded and managed by local Baha'i governing councils are overseen by a national Baha'i Tutorial Schools Committee and the government Ministry of Community Services, which also supplies materials and periodic teacher training courses. In Haiti under Baha'i management, five Family Education Centres, which follow the UNICEF early stimulation program for three- to five-year-olds, now provide literacy instruction to accompanying adults, mostly women.

2.2 Established projects:

Established Baha'i literacy programmes for women and girls integrate literacy with community training in health, crafts, agriculture, solving family and community problems, and empowerment through spiritual principles. Results have been gratifying in a number of countries, including Kenya, India, Zaire, and Panama.

Results in Kenya: The Baha'is of Kenya have, for the past five years, conducted programmes which call upon women to champion health, agriculture, morals, and domestic skills training for children. In the process of learning and teaching these topics, the women themselves acquire their essential literacy skills. A series of mother's booklets, developed in Kenya for these programmes, has been shared with Baha'i communities around the world and is currently being translated into 26 languages.

Results in India: The women of India are overcoming both cast prejudice and their traditionally low status with the help of the educational activities of their local Baha'i councils. The Faizi Vocational Institute for Rural Women in Indore, and the outreach programmes of the New Era School in Panchgani are examples of successful grass roots approaches to education for women.

At the Faizi Vocational Institute, crafts training is supplemented by literacy classes and daily informal discussions, which stimulate self-expression, sharpen thinking skills, and awaken an awareness of both problems and possibilities. Literate women trainees tutor the illiterate ones; health and hygiene information is included with discussions of the spiritual and moral education of children; and useful village technologies, such as a fuel-efficient, smokeless stove, are introduced. Respected male members of the national Baha'i community speak to the men of the community about the principle of sexual equality and urge husbands to take pride in their wives' accomplishments.

The New Era High School in Panchgani, India, began in 1984 with 30 literacy centres where 900 adults, 750 of whom were women, came to learn. Since then the programme has expanded to 100 centres in 60 villages. Through this literacy instruction, many adults are learning about health, nutrition, cleanliness and the importance of sending their children to school. Results for many students include the reduction of dowries for marriages, the elimination of intake of alcoholic beverages, adoption of new agricultural techniques, the use of new seed varieties and an improvement in their social situations.

Results in Zaire: The "Bayanda Project" in Zaire represents one of the most successful efforts in literacy training the Baha'is have experienced to date. The people served by this project have historically had little or no opportunity for formal education. Nevertheless, since 1987, over 2500 students have completed the literacy course, 70% of them women and girls. Moreover, after attending literacy classes, 15 of the Bayanda children were integrated into classes in the local government-sponsored school where they performed in the top 10% of their groups.

Results in Panama: The Guaymi Cultural Centre in Panama has placed the advancement of women at the forefront of its activities. The most notable recent achievement of the Guaymi Cultural Centre has involved close cooperation with the government. The Ministry of Education chose the Guaymi Cultural Centre to be a seat for its literacy efforts. In the process of creating the literacy materials, the Baha'i teachers convinced the Ministry officials that empowering concepts based on spiritual principles of upliftment would be more durable than those based on food production, land ownership, etc. They are now in the process of re-working the entire programme.

If any assistance is given to national machinery for the advancement of women, please provide examples.

In 1989, national Baha'i communities reported increased activity in support of the advancement of women. Of the 151 national governing councils, more than 50 had appointed women's committees and over 100 reported activities targeting women. Some of these women's committees have contact with their governments; many work with like-minded organizations; and all raise awareness of the need for equal participation by women in every aspect of human endeavor.

How is assistance given to national NGOs?

The Baha'i International Community, as a network of extremely diverse national and local communities, is convinced that, although global priorities are established by the international governing council, plans for specific development projects must spring from the grass roots.

The Baha'i International Community United Nations office provides the national affiliates with regular information about United Nations activities that are consistent with Baha'i community priorities. Wherever appropriate, the Baha'i International Community facilitates relations between national affiliates and such UN agencies as UNICEF and WHO. National affiliates are also advised about possible sources of support for projects they have chosen to undertake.

How is contact made and maintained with grass roots organizations in developing countries?

The Baha'i International Community maintains contact with local affiliates through their national governing councils, providing where necessary Baha'i development consultants and facilitating contact with other NGOs and UN agencies. Communications take the form of general mailings; quarterly issues of the Baha'i International Community newsletter, One Country; the Baha'i International News Service; and direct communication through correspondence, phone, fax and e-mail.

Recent publications (studies etc.) with focus on women's issues:

In 1986, a compilation of the Baha'i Writings on the subject of women was prepared and subsequently published in many languages for global distribution.

In 1989, the Association for Baha'i Studies, by focusing its Annual International Conference on the theme of "Full Partnership Between Women and Men," stimulated research on women's issues in the light of Baha'i teachings. Tapes of many of the conference presentations are available. Some of the scholarly papers produced for the conference are being published in the quarterly Journal of Baha'i Studies or will be published as monographs.

Recent scholarship has also produced at least seven biographies of noted Baha'i women and a book of essays by women and men about their personal struggles with issues of sexual equality. Moreover, many national affiliates have produced books, compilations, studies and tapes on divorce, marriage, and family life to assist both men and women learn to cope with equality.

Recurrent publications (newsletters etc.) with focus on women's issues:

In 1989, 446 newsletters and magazines were published by Baha'i communities. Because sexual equality is a central issue in Baha'i community life, and because it is considered the responsibility of both men and women, women's issues are frequently addressed in these publications and have occasionally formed the focus for one issue.

One Country, the quarterly newsletter of the Baha'i International Community has focused international attention on the Faizi Institute in India; smokeless stoves in Kenya; women and development in the South Pacific; training primary health care workers (mostly women) in Chad; and a women's advocacy coalition of NGOs, UN agencies, and intergovernmental organizations called Advocates for African Food Security: Lessening the Burden on Women.