The term ‘religious communities’ broadly refers to both female and male religious actors and to systems and structures that institutionalize belief systems within religious traditions at all levels – from local to global. These include:
There is immense complexity and diversity among religious communities with regard to their organizational structure and position and status in society. “These actors vary in size, mission, role, geographic scope and technical capacity – some operate on shoe-string budgets, while others administer over one billion dollars annually…. Some organizations are loosely inspired by faith principles, while others are formally linked to religious institutions.” It is important that religious communities be understood on the basis of the ways in which they identify themselves.
Most of the major religious traditions have intra-religious (or denominational) organizations and associations that seek to consolidate the collective strength of their various branches or denominations in pursuit of policy-making, advocacy and other efforts to advance the principles of their faith. “The degree of structure … varies, as the sector includes both defined religious communities with hierarchical leadership structures as well as decentralized ‘movements’ of individuals with shared principles and interests.”
Some religious communities form organizations/networks/instruments for other specific purposes. Among these, some of the most visible in humanitarian and development contexts are referred to as faith-based organizations (FBOs) or faith-inspired organizations (FIOs). These organizations operate in much the same way as other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in supporting development and, in many cases, emergency humanitarian responses across the whole spectrum of programming.
However, there are many more actors and structures comprising the full range of religious communities that should be better understood by child rights actors. While often overlooked, some of the strongest work is being carried out quietly by religious women’s and youth groups, for example, spearheaded by members of religious communities who may not be in formal leadership roles but who are on the frontlines of advocacy and service delivery for those most in need at the community level.
Religious communities may also join together in formal or informal networks and platforms that go beyond their own faith tradition. These inter-religious mechanisms leverage the social, spiritual, moral and other assets of different religious communities to align around common problems and accomplish positive change by harnessing their collective and complementary strengths. Many of them focus their efforts specifically on the promotion and protection of different aspects of children’s rights. The table on the next page provides an overview of the potential roles that religious actors could play depending on their type.