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“This shouldn’t be such a difficult topic for people of faith. It seems entirely consistent with the teachings of the world’s great religions that men and women are equal in the eyes of God.”After a meeting with fellow religious leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes about the role faith leaders can play in promoting equality for girls and women.

The World Economic Forum is mostly a meeting of business and political leaders, but it also brings together many wonderful people from other sectors – including my distinguished colleagues from the faith community.

I was particularly delighted and honoured that a group of leaders from many faiths agreed to join me in Davos on Thursday to discuss the issue of gender equality.

When we exclude women, we diminish ourselves

This shouldn’t be such a difficult topic for people of faith. It seems entirely consistent with the teachings of the world’s great religions that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. God isn’t stupid – He created Eve because Adam couldn’t make it on his own. Kofi Annan, receiving a report from the UN Alliance of Civilizations, said it is the faithful who are the problem - not the faiths.

Nevertheless, faith and gender remains a sensitive subject. My colleagues indulged me and allowed me to reflect on the apartheid era when the majority of South Africans were excluded and marginalised for something they could do nothing about: their ethnicity.

It seems to me that women are also sidelined for something they can do nothing about,their gender and humanity is the poorer for it. In my own church, which decided only in 1992 that women could be ordained as priests and bishops, it was quite a shock to realise how much we had diminished ourselves in our ministry when we saw the difference women made.

In this volatile time, when there is so much distress and dissatisfaction, we are wasting a huge source of talent and wisdom by not including women as equals in all aspects of life – whether in politics, business or religion.

Can faith leaders show the way?

We religious leaders have been given an incredible privilege. In almost any community, even in this day and age, people still listen carefully to what we have to say. I believe that we have the task of humanising our communities, and helping them to change when change is necessary. We also need to look at changing our own practices if need be.

I think that my colleagues and I were in agreement that women need to play a greater leadership role across the board, but we also talked about concrete ideas where we are uniquely placed to make a difference – for example in ending the scourge of child marriage.

Child marriage is particularly devastating for girls. These children – 10 million a year – are married before the age of 18, usually with no say in the matter and often to much older men. They drop out of school and are expected to have children quickly, putting their bodies at great risk of death and injury in pregnancy and childbirth.

These girls are among the most invisible and vulnerable people on earth – yet their fate has huge implications for their communities. Taking them out of school reduces their chances of getting a job, perpetuating poverty. Many important aspects of development are hindered by child marriage: education, maternal and child health, tackling diseases like AIDS – let alone gender equality.

I was heartened to hear my colleagues in Davos share my feeling that we as religious leaders have an important role to play in facilitating positive change in our communities. I hope that we can continue our conversation and find ways to work together to build a more equitable world.

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