This year at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, I was struck by the number of sessions that focused on the pandemic of violence against women and girls. I grieved that this violence continues, often fueled by religion. The emphasis was on religion not only as a cause of this violence, but also as the solution. Religion can be a roadblock or a resource.
One of the sessions I attended was titled “Sacred and Safe: Building Capacity of Faith Communities to Address Gender-Based Violence.” One panelist cited a survey that found that 74% of clergy underestimate the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence. Violence affects one in three women worldwide, despite being recognized as a gross human rights violation and a barrier to global development.
Another panelist cited factors that contribute to this prevalence of violence against women:• fundamentalist religious teachings; • gender inequality; • challenges to human rights. She named ways that faith communities matter in addressing violence against women: • hold a unique position to help as a safe place to disclose and ask for assistance; • offer spiritual support; • foster the process of recovery as survivors reach out, seeking answers; • provide advocacy and resource referral, and work toward systemic change.
I would add that faith communities can deconstruct misinterpretations of sacred texts that contribute to the inequality of women and violence against them, and they can teach interpretations of sacred texts and images of the Divine that support the full equality and sacred worth of women.
One speaker at this session commended President Jimmy Carter for challenging faith communities to take action to eliminate gender-based violence by teaching theology that supports the equality of women in every sphere of life. In his book Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, Carter writes: “The world’s discrimination and violence against women and girls is the most serious, pervasive, and ignored violation of basic human rights. The most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence and warfare.” Carter sees the misinterpretation of sacred texts by major religions, including Christianity, as the foundational cause of violence against women and girls. Carter, an active Baptist layperson and Sunday school teacher for more than 70 years, calls out these misinterpretations in his Christian tradition. Good for him! He demonstrates how selected passages in the Bible have been distorted to support the inequality of women, leading to violence against them. Also, Carter cites many passages in the Gospels that illustrate Jesus’ equal treatment of women, and gives examples in the writings of Paul that support the full equality of women.
This UN session also highlighted the outstanding work of FaithTrust Institute toward the elimination of gender-based violence. Founded in 1977 by Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune, FaithTrust Institute is a national, multifaith, multicultural organization with global reach working to end sexual and domestic violence. The Institute provides faith communities the tools and knowledge needed for addressing the religious and cultural issues related to abuse. FaithTrust Institute provides religion-specific intervention and prevention training, consulting, and educational materials for faith-based and secular organizations in the following areas:• domestic and sexual violence; • healthy teen relationships, preventing teen dating violence; • child abuse, children and youth exposed to domestic violence; • healthy boundaries for clergy and spiritual teachers, responding to clergy misconduct; • trafficking of persons.
Marie Fortune’s book Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited calls religious leaders to awareness not only of the pervasive problems but also of the potential of faith communities to eradicate gender-based violence.
Our ethical values of justice, love, and equality lead us to affirm the dignity and worth of every human being and the right of each person to live free of violence. Our faith compels us to work to end violence against women and girls in our religious communities and in society at large. Our faith empowers us to create a world where all people are free of violence and all are free to become all we are meant to be in the divine image.