Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities
Edexcel RS IGCSE section D

The specification says:

The issues of, religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings about, and the (differing) attitudes of religious and non-religious people to: the status and role of women in society and religious communities, including reasons for differing attitudes; the growth of equal rights and equal opportunities for women in society, and the extent to which they are practised in religious communities; gender bias in society and religious communities; the status and role of those with a disability (mental and physical) in society and religious communities, including reasons for differing attitudes; the growth of equal rights and equal opportunities for those with a disability in society, and the extent to which they are practised in religious communities; disability bias in society and religious communities.  

Christian beliefs/teachings about love and the value of the individual. Examples of Christian

Key vocabulary:

Disability: A physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities

Disability biasRegarding and/or treating those with a disability less favourably than others

Equal opportunities: All people being (legally) entitled to equal opportunities in relation to employment and provision of goods, facilities and services

Equal rights: All people being (legally) entitled to fair and equal treatment

Gender bias: Regarding and/or treating either men or women more favourably

The edexcel RS IGCSE section D topic equal rights and equal opportunities looks at the changing attitudes towards women and towards disability.  You will find that there is some overlap with the section C topic marriage and divorce and family responsibilities.  Furthermore, many of the teachings that you have already used when discussing human rights would be useful here.  

Changing attitudes towards women in society:

The traditional view:

The traditional view of women is that they are the weaker sex and more suited to the roles of wife and mother than the world of work.  Their character is supposed to naturally incline them towards caring and virtues like patience, consideration, humility and altruism have been valued in women.  They have often been believed to be more emotional, less logical, less academically capable (especially in the sciences) and less ruthlessly competitive all of which makes them unsuited to the task of breadwinner.  Historically when women did venture into the world of work it was careers like nursing or roles which involved caring for children which made use of their natural motherly instincts.

Equal rights and equal opportunities:

UK Timeline:

1792: Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

1851:  Harriet Taylor's essay 'The Enfranchisement of Women' was published.

1870: The Married Women's Property Act allowed married women to own property.

1903: The Women's Social and Political Union founded by the Pankhursts.

1908&1913: In Hyde Park mass rallies for the vote.

1912: Cat and Mouse Act.

1918: Women over thirty get the right to vote.

1920: The Sex Discrimination Removal Act allowed women to become lawyers.

1923: Matrimonial Causes Act permits divorce on the same terms for men and women.

* 1928: Women get the vote on equal terms to men.

1967: Abortion Act

* 1970: Equal pay Act.

* 1975: Sex Discrimination Act made discrimination at work illegal.  The Employment Protection Act provided statuary maternity leave and protected pregnant workers from the sack.

* 2010: Equality Act


The equal rights movement began in the eighteenth century with people like Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Frankinstein author Mary Shelley).  Mary Wollstonecraft was influenced by the French Revolution and defended its principles.  She went on to argue that if all men were entitled to liberty, equality and brotherhood (the Revolutionary ideals) then these should be open to women too. She argued that if women were to be educated like men then they would become just as capable of decision making and she believed that male/female difference was all down to upbringing.  Harriet Taylor (partner of the philosopher John Stuart Mill) believed that in addition to education women required job opportunities and the vote.  

More information on both Harriet Taylor and Mary Wollstonecraft can be found in the OCR DCT A2 section of this site.

A job (and therefore a wage) would prevent women from becoming trapped in unhappy marriages because they would have their own source of income and would not be dependent upon men for support.  The vote would give women a voice in politics.  

The campaign for female suffrage (the vote) was taken up by the suffragists (campaigners who used non-violent methods) and the suffragettes (who believed that the use of violence was permissible given the urgency of their cause.  The suffragragettes used public civil disobedience, rallies and acts of vandalism as well as leaflets and campaigning to further their cause.  Many were arrested and once in prison some of the suffragettes went on hunger strike.  The government passed what became known as the Cat and Mouse act which permitted hunger strikers to be released to allow them to recover and then rearrested to serve the rest of their sentence.  It was not until 1918 that women first gained the vote and even then it was not on the same terms as men.  However, WWI helped to foster changing attitudes towards women.  During the war years with the men away fighting in the trenches many women took on traditionally 'male' jobs.  This showed that women were capable of more than just being wives and mothers.

Throughout the twentieth century women were increasingly seen as men's equals. During WWII women again took on key roles in the country whilst the men were away.  The 1960s saw the introduction of the pill and the Abortion Act both of which helped to ensure that women had more control over their own bodies and made motherhood a choice rather than an 'occupational hazard of being a wife' (as Queen Victoria put it)!  In the 1970s legislation promised women equal pay to men and made discrimination at work illegal.  In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of Britain.

In 2012 Pakistani school girl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for writing a blog in which she championed education for girls and wrote about life under the Taliban.  

In Saudi Arabia women are not permitted to drive and they need  a male guardian's permission to marry or to even leave the country.  

Legally women in Britain do have equal rights with men and most people would say that they have equal opportunities (although some people believe that the 'glass ceiling' of prejudice makes it hard for women to reach the top jobs). However, women in other parts of the world are not necessarily so lucky. In many areas around the world women face inequality in the work place, unequal access to divorce and education, forced marriage and domestic violence.

Amnesty International campaigns for equal rights and equal opportunities for women world wide.

To see their current campaigns go to Amnesty International's page for Women's Rights.

Christian attitudes towards women:

A fantastic site for exploring the stories about women in the Bible can be found here.

The Bible is important to all Christians although some take its teachings more literally than others. The Bible is actually a collection of different books written by different authors and at different times. Many of the writers lived in patriarchal societies in which women were treated differently to men and the Biblical authors reflected this world view in their writing.  

Many feminists have argued that Biblical teachings have actually contributed to gender discrimination and stories like Genesis 2-3 (in which Eve is made as a 'helper' to Adam and then leads him to sin) have been used to justify male superiority.

However, there are other general principles (such as the love commandment) in the Bible that could easily be used to support the principles of equal rights and equal opportunities.  Jesus himself seems to have treated women with respect and many people would say that his attitude was revolutionary for the time.

Old Testament women:

  • Women mentioned in the Old Testament tend to be wives and/or mothers and the women who are presented as virtuous role models tend to be obedient, loyal and self-sacrificing like Ruth who remained loyal to her mother in law and looked after her after her husband died.  

Deborah (Judges 4:4-8)

4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.  

5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.  

6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor.  

7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”

8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”

  • Sometimes women appear in the Bible as weak victims whose lives are controlled by men.  For example, in the book of Judges a man trapped in a house by his enemies sends his concubine out to be raped.  In the morning he steps over her apparently lifeless body before having her dismembered and sent out as a warning to others.
  • Powerful women are often presented as sexual temptresses or as manipulative and dangerous like Eve who leads Adam to sin.
  • Laws in the Old Testament permitted a man to have more than one wife. They could also take concubines and sleep with their servants and to sleep (Abraham had a child with Hagar his wife Sarah's servant).  Women were expected to be virgins at marriage or face stoning.  Women who had been raped were no longer marriageable and were expected to marry their attacker.  Men could get a divorce easily by writing a bill of divorce but women could not get a divorce at all.  
  • However, there are examples of powerful women in the Old Testament. Deborah was one of the judges (rulers) of Israel.  She advised the people and gave her generals courage in battle.

Jesus' attitude towards women:

Many Christians believe that Jesus had a very enlightened attitude towards women. Although he did not have any female disciples he clearly had female followers.  His female followers were the first witnesses to the resurrection and some people (like the feminist theologian Elaine Pagels) believe that Mary Magdalene was a very important disciple whom Jesus trusted.

Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42)

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.

39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching.

40 But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."

41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things;

42 one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."

  • The story of Mary and Martha is a good example to use to demonstrate Jesus' 'revolutionary' attitude towards women.  In the story he appears to support Mary's refusal to conform to the accepted female stereotype and instead supports her right to sit and learn as the men do.
  • He healed a hemorrhaging woman even though according to Jewish law she was ritually unclean and to touch her (or allow her to touch him) should have made him unclean too.
  • Finally, when Jesus was brought a woman found committing adultery he forgave her even though the Jewish law said that she should be stoned.
  • In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus prevents men from getting divorced for any reason other than adultery (in other words, he gives the woman some protection).

Women in the early church:

It is difficult to know exactly what role women played in the early church, but their are indications that they were actively involved in important roles.

  • In the end of his letter to the church at Rome Paul introduces and recommends Phoebe a 'deacon'.  Deacon literally means 'servant' in Greek and was a specific ordained role within the church a few centuries later.  We don't know exactly what Phoebe was doing, but Paul evidently respected her contributions.  See Romans 16.
  • Paul also describes husband and wife couple Prisca and Aquilla as his 'co-workers'.  Paul was an apostle who went around founding churches and spreading the word so it seems that Pricsa and Aquilla must have been doing that too.  In Acts (not written by Paul) Pricsa and Aquilla are again mentioned and are described as teaching the Christian message to a Jew named Apollos.
  • Women prophesied in church.  Acts 21:9 says that Philip had four daughters who prophesied.  Paul also mentions women prophesying and goes into detail about how they should behave when they did it.

The early Christians taught equality that 'there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28) and many scholars believe that they reflected this in their treatment of women.

'Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.'

2 Timothy 2:11-12

However, there are also letters written during the early years of Christianity which suggest a less positive attitude towards women.  Paul's second letter to the church at Corinth says that women should be silent in church and the letter to Timothy (not by Paul) is even more forceful in its language. The so called 'household codes' in Ephesians and Colossians specify that wives should obey their husbands.  

It has been suggested that the early Christians found that they had to modify Jesus' egalitarian message in order to make Christianity socially acceptable to a traditional society. Their main aim was to convert people as many believed the second coming and judgement day were imminent. The message of gender equality may have been considered less important than the main task of saving people from hell.

Women as wives and mothers:

In 1988 Pope John Paul II wrote a letter called the Mulieris Dignitatem in which he described motherhood and virginity as the two great vocations of women.  In it he held up the virgin Mary as the supreme example of both.  Motherhood was, he said, a way of sharing in God's creative purpose.  Virginity was a way in which women could dedicate themselves to God.  His aim was to demonstrate how highly the Church respects women but many women have found the document patronising and narrow minded.

Many liberal Christians would argue that God creates individuals with their own particular talents and abilities.  Not all women are suited to motherhood or to becoming a wife and God might have very different purposes for them.

Ordination of women:

The ordination of women has been a very contensious issue within Christianity. The Church of England (Anglican Church) first ordained women in 1994 (having authorised doing so in 1992) but still has no women bishops.  Many traditionalists in the Church of England still do not approve of women priests.

The Roman Catholic church does not ordain women.  Their arguments against the ordination of women are as follows:

Arguments against:

  • The Church has never had women as priests and the current leadership do not have the authority to overturn two thousand years of tradition.
  • The Bible says women should be silent in church and should not have authority over a man (see the 2 Timothy quotation above)
  • Jesus did not have female disciples which shows that he did not expect women to play that sort of authoritative lead role.
  • The priest represents Jesus during the service and Jesus was male.
  • God creates women equal but different.  They are created to be helpers of men as wives and mothers.

However, those in favour of female ordination argue that:

Arguments for:

  • God created men and women, both are in the image of God and both are equal.
  • Jesus treated women as equals and was revolutionary for his day.
  • Women were involved in central roles in the early church.
  • The Bible was written at a time when women were not treated equally and reflects those attitudes.  Not all it's teachings should be taken literally.
  • Women are just as capable of fulfilling the role of priest as men are.
  • The Church must modernise to remain relevant in society.

Consider: Does 'equality' mean that men and women have to have completely equal access to all roles?  Is it possible to have equality when there are some roles open to men and others open to women provided those different roles are viewed as equally important?

(In other words, does the Roman Catholic belief that men and women are 'equal but different' make sense?)

Changing attitudes towards disability:

UK Timeline:

1601: Elizabethan Poor Law.

1764: First special school for deaf children opened.

1920: Blind Person's Act.

1944: Disabled Persons' Employment Act.

1952: Scope founded to try and fight for disabled children to have equal rights to education.

* 1979: Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons' bill.

1980s: First UK centres for independent living founded.

* 1995: The Disability Discrimination Act.

2000: Disability Rights Commission founded.

* 2010: Equality Act.

Until relatively recently those with disabilities were unlikely to have equal rights or equal opportunities within society.   Throughout much of history there was no social welfare for those unable to work.  In the medieval period it was down to monasteries and convents to look after the sick and disabled as best they could in their hospitals. This ended with the dissolution of the monasteries.  Over a century later the Elizabethan Poor law of 1601 specified that the 'deserving poor' (i.e those who could not work) should be provided for by the local parish in poorhouses.  By the nineteenth century charities and organisations had been founded to help support those with various disabilities but equal rights and equal opportunities were still a long way off.  Even throughout much of the twentieth century disabled children would not have had the opportunity to go to a mainstream school or gain a mainstream education.  Mothers giving birth to disabled children were sometimes encouraged to put them in institutional homes. Public places like shops, theatres and places of work rarely had any special provision made to ensure that they were accessible and many people with disabilities faced regular discrimination and prejudice.

Attitudes began to change after WWI and WWII with the return of many thousands of injured servicemen.  These men disabled in the line of duty had an obvious right to be afforded some level of protection by the country for whom they had made sacrifices.  Many were fit and capable despite their injuries and did not fit with the stereotypes people had about what it meant to be disabled.  The Blind Person's Act allowed blind people to claim a pension at 50 rather than 70.  

As the twentieth century progressed attitudes continued to evolve and there was a gradual move away from just 'looking after' the disabled towards ensuring that people with disabilities could live as independently as possible and participate fully in society.  However, it was not until 1970 that the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act was passed.  This act was proposed by MP Alf Morris whose parents and parents in law were disabled.  The Act stated that local authorities had a responsibility to provide for the needs of the disabled and stated that the disabled had equal rights to education and recreation.  It also stated that public buildings should be as accessible as possible and provide disabled parking and disabled toilets. It was the first disability rights legislation in the world.

In 1995 the Disability Discrimination Act was passed which prohibited discrimination against those with disabilities in employment, education or in the provision of goods and services.  In 2010 the Equality Act unified all previous discrimination legislation.

Whilst the law now reflects the principles of equal rights and equal opportunities many disability campaigners believe that in practice there is still a lot to do. People with disabilities still face prejudice and discrimination and still have difficulties accessing goods and services.  

Christian attitudes towards disability:

Disability in the Old Testament:

The Old Testament does not say much about disability.  However, Leviticus says that those with a disability cannot become priests

'For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles.' (Leviticus 21:17-20)

But the Old Testament also says ‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.’ (Deuteronomy 27:18) which implies that people should not take advantage of others.

Jesus' attitude towards disability:

Note: In the story of the paralysed man lowered through the roof to be healed Jesus does heal the man by saying 'your sins are forgiven' but many Christians would say that Jesus was using terms that his audience would understand rather than implying that he himself believed that sin caused the paralysis.

Jesus' healing ministry demonstrates that he viewed the sick and the disabled as equals in need of practical help rather than pity.  Unlike many people of his time he does not seem to have viewed illness as a punishment for sin.  In John 9 Jesus comes across a man born blind and is asked 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'.  Jesus replied 'neither this man nor his parents sinned' and went on to heal the man.  According to the gospels he healed those suffering from leprosy (lepers at that time were outcasts who lived on the fringes of society), he healed blindness, deafness, paralysis and many other things besides.  

Jesus also explicitly told his followers to do the same.

  • The parable of the Good Samaritan (told to illustrate that anyone in need counts as a neighbour and thus should be treated with love) ends with the words 'Go and do likewise'

Christians would say that all people, regardless of disability are children of the same God and are equal in value to able bodied people.  There are several verses in the Bible which suggest that God can use weakness and infirmity so it can actually be a strength and some people believe that their are indications that St Paul had some form of disability or illness as he refers to his 'thorn in the flesh' that persecuted him.

Practical action:

Abortion = A disability rights issue?

It is estimated that 90% of couples told that their unborn baby has a disability will choose to abort.   Some campaigners argue that this is a form of eugenics and is contrary to the Disability Discrimination Act.  The Roman Catholic church is opposed to abortion of disabled foetuses and argues that the foetus as an absolute right to life.

Some people support the abortion of severely disabled foetuses with painful life-limiting conditions but morally disagree with the abortion of foetuses with more minor conditions.  In the UK three babies a day are aborted because they have Downs Syndrome (Daily Telegraph). Campaigners for those with Downs Syndrome argue that those with Downs can lead fulfilling and semi independent lives.  The Anglican Curate Joanna Jepsen campaigned against the abortion of foetuses with cleft lip and palate.

The Disability Discrimination Act required institutions like the Church of England to ensure that they were accessible to those with disabilities.  Many church buildings are old and were designed without disability access in mind. They are also often listed which means that they are historically important and cannot be altered in ways that damages the historic fabric of the building. However, there are certain measures that churches can take to increase their accessibility:

  • Ramps and handrails to help those with physical disabilities.  
  • Large print hymn books and service books or braille alternatives for the visually impaired.
  • Hearing loop systems and perhaps signing during services to assist the deaf.
  • Visiting the housebound, taking them communion and ensuring that they feel included.

Christians might also work for disability rights by giving time or money to charities that help provide services to the disabled.

  • Livability is a Christian charity which (among other things) runs care homes, provides accessible holidays and helps with rehabilitation of those who have suffered brain injuries.  Their website provides details of their Christian ethos and the range of services they provide.
  • CBM is a Christian charity working with the disabled abroad.
  • Through the roof is an organisation which tries to ensure that the Christian message is accessible to all those with disabilities.  They take their name from the story of the paralysed man lowered through the roof into a house where Jesus was preaching.

Link back to Edexcel RS IGCSE Section D page.

Further reading:

Women's rights interactive quiz here.