Linkages between Religious Fundamentalism and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Global South

STATEMENT: International Day of Women’s Health 2014


Linkages between Religious Fundamentalism and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Global South

Despite progress in terms of economic growth in the Global South, marginalised groups including women do not always benefit from these gains and continue to be affected by rising poverty, inequities and inequalities. The growing influence of religious fundamentalism on this regression and its adverse effects on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of people, including women, young people, sexual and gender minorities, and other marginalised groups has to be considered if we are to ensure a just development process.

On International Day of Women’s Health, we speak out that religious fundamentalism has rolled back past gains made on SRHR, barred the development and implementation of SRHR policies and programmes as well as in achieving universal access to SRHR. Further, the use of narrow interpretations of women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights, has negatively influenced policy makers and the public, and created policies that hamper the realisation of universal SRHR. If we are to ensure a holistic, inclusive, and human rights-based approach to realizing women and girls’ health, then we need to address the influence of religious fundamentalisms.

The Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), together with its national partners located in the Global South, are committed to addressing the growing influence of religious fundamentalism, and fundamentalist thinking and organising on the dimensions of the SRHR agenda in the Global South.

What is Religious Fundamentalism?

Although there exist several debates on the usage of the term ‘religious fundamentalism’ because of its Christian origins, its automatic connotation with retrogression and backwardness (Danguilan, 2008), its instant association with Islam (Danguilan, 2008; Kasim, 2008) and its resultant associations with terrorism, anti-Americanism and fanaticism (Danguilan, 2008), it continues to be used in the absence of a more adequate term. We use the term as not typical of any particular religion. Instead, we use it to discuss its manifestations across diverse religions to curb rights and especially SRHR of various marginalised groups. We use it more as a structural term to mean the arbitrary isolation of thinking and action from any criticism or alternative ways of thinking.

Religious fundamentalism is not about religion but about the misuse of religion for political power. It has been selective about certain aspects of modernity as against their religious identity, and are associated with conservative authoritarian policies (Danguilan, 2008). Religious fundamentalists all over the world oppose any space for change resulting in direct and indirect controls over gender and sexuality curbing women’s rights and especially over women from marginalised communities, including gender and sexual minorities (Shah, 2008). There seems to be a conflation of different religious fundamentalisms, which has given rise to religious right ideologies that use discourses of religion and culture to maintain and extend power over the public and private domains (Kasim, 2008). Because women are often considered the custodians of family norms and honour, their bodies and sexualities become important sites of religious control (Iqbal, 2008).


How does it affect marginalised groups, including women?

Religious fundamentalism has been seen to affect the lives of women and other marginalised groups in numerous ways. Unmarried and single women are from prevented from accessing sexual and reproductive health services and interventions by religious authorities, who serve as gatekeepers of culture. People living with HIV and AIDS are prohibited from accessing treatment and services as they are viewed as ‘sinners’ and of low moral standards. Sexuality is considered taboo and sinful, thus limiting safe spaces for frank and positive dialogues on sexual and reproductive health and rights issues. Sexual minorities are unable to acknowledge and develop positive attitudes with regards to their sexuality and access SRHR services thus driving them underground. Abortion is restricted and criminalised, thus forcing women to avail unsafe and illegal abortions and thereby endangering their lives and health. Fundamentalists often propagate and fail to address sexual violations on women, marital rape, female genital mutilation and circumcision, honour crimes, forced and early marriages, mass rapes, restrictions on women’s mobility, clothing and economic and political participation, trafficking, virginity tests and moral policing (Kasim, 2008) and undertake targetted violence on health professionals (Zia 2013).


Given these needs ARROW and its partners:

  • SUPPORT the empowerment of women at all levels to challenge and demystify myths around misogynist religious and cultural discourses that impede women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
  • BELIEVE in the critical role and value of women’s voices in relation to hegemonic interpretations of culture and religion and prescriptions of identity politics such as religious fundamentalisms that undermine women’s autonomy and their sexual and reproductive rights, and have negative impact on their sexual and reproductive health.
  • BELIEVE that religious fundamentalisms are rooted in the patriarchal system and are discriminatory and exploitative of marginalised communities.
  • BELIEVE that religious fundamentalisms strike at sexual and reproductive rights of various communities, including women, young people and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex individuals (LGBTQI) and affect their rights.
  • BELIEVE that religious fundamentalisms prevent marginalised groups from having universal access to SRHR services regardless of married and unmarried status, access of HIV treatment services for people living with HIV, contraception, abortion, bodily integrity and to be free from all abuse.


ARROW and its partners:

  • CALL on researchers and academics to advocate for a stronger evidence base that explores the effects of religious fundamentalisms;
  • CALL on practitioners to integrate evidence into creating innovative and successful interventions at the local and the national levels that ensure universal access of SRHR;
  • CALL on NGOs and CSOs to come together and create safe spaces for dialogue on the intersections of religious fundamentalisms and SRHR, as well as monitor, act and advocate to counter religious fundamentalisms;
  • CALL on progressive religious bodies for an open and safe debate and discussion on these issues and join in advancing SRHR for all;
  • CALL on all donor agencies and the United Nations to engage with religious fundamentalisms, take cognisance of its adverse effects on SRHR for all marginalised communities;
  • CALL on all governments to remove legal and policy barriers based in political, religious and cultural conservatism and make available universal access to SRHR services for all.



Danguilan, M. 2008. Keeping the Faith: Overcoming Religious Fundamentalisms. ARROWs for Change, 14(1&2): 1-3.

Iqbal, S. 2008. Growing Fundamentalisms: A Grave Apprehension for Women’s Rights in Pakistan. ARROWs for Change, 14(1&2): 8-9.

Kasim, Z. M. 2008. Religious Fundamentalisms in Muslim Societies: The Impact of the Religious Right on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. In ARROW (Ed.) Surfacing: Selected Papers on Religious Fundamentalisms and Their Impact on Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (pp 39-48). Kuala Lumpur: ARROW.

Shah, C. 2008. Hindu Fundamentalisms in India: Examining Impact and Responses by the Women’s Movements. ARROWs for Change, 14(1&2): 4-5.

Zia, H. S. 2013. Pakistan’s war on polio workers: When Pakistan’s feminists and activists protest against abuses by the Taliban, some critics make misguided appeals to context.


Endorsed By:

  1. Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), Malaysia
  2. Likhaan, the Philippines
  3. Naripokkho, Bangladesh
  4. Rural Women’s Social Education Centre (RUWSEC), India
  5. Sisters in Islam (SIS), Malaysia
  6. Shirkat Gah – Women’s Resource Centre, Pakistan
  7. Women and Media Collective (WMC), Sri Lanka
  8. Yayasan Kesehatan Perempuan (Women’s Health Foundation), Indonesia


For more information please contact Azra Abdul Cader at