If people of faith will not speak out against gender violence, who will?

One of the most moving sessions I attended at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (UN CSW) was titled “Global Faith Perspectives on Sexual and Gender-based Violence.”  At the front of the large room where we met was a banner with this challenging question: “If people of faith will not speak out against gender violence, who will?”  Presentations highlighted ways that faith groups can be mobilized to create powerful change at local and national levels to end sexual and gender-based violence.

The first panelist, Nikki Rineer, told her heartbreaking story of the sexual abuse she suffered from a leader in her church when she was a little girl. Her abuser was never confronted or challenged by the church. She talked about what churches can do to prevent abuse and to bring healing to survivors.

Another panelist, Constance Mogina, HIV/AIDS Development Officer for the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea, brought the perspective of a field practitioner working to raise awareness on prevention, care and support, and intervention for HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence. She lamented that in Papua New Guinea 67% of women are beaten by their husbands, 50% experience forced sex, and 50% of reported rape victims are under 15. One of the challenges she faces is that government leaders aren’t interested in learning about how to intervene. Nevertheless, she continues to advocate for change and to provide care and support to survivors.

Representing a faith leader’s perspective, Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya of the Anglican Church in Swaziland, the first female bishop in Africa, talked about the church’s role in responding to violence and emphasized key theological points supporting equality for women. Bishop Wamukoya stated that in Swaziland, as elsewhere, culture and tradition are used to justify discrimination against women, despite biblical teaching. “Liberation from sexism must be a major preoccupation of the church in the 21st century,” she said. “If the church recognizes the value of all people in the image of God, it cannot accept or perpetuate discrimination! The irony is that many women church leaders don’t speak out; clergywomen often support male-dominated churches that overlook violence against women. They become part of institutionalized sexism instead of speaking out against it.”

Kera Street, a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, provided an academic researcher’s perspective. She expressed her hope that research on the prevalence of gender-based violence will empower people to take action to end this violence. But she said that for academic research to impact people, it must be accompanied by stories of survivors. Stories give faces to statistics. Research also sheds light on how faith communities are responding, helps raise awareness, puts gender-based violence in cultural and historical context, and shows how race, class, gender, and nationality intersect. She also emphasized the importance of inclusive language for God and humanity in our work to end gender-based violence.

The moderator of this panel was Rev. Amy Gopp, a Disciples of Christ minister currently serving as Director of Member Relations and Pastoral Care at Church World Service and as co-chair of the Steering Committee of the We Will Speak Out U.S. campaign to end sexual and gender-based violence. Rev. Gopp encouraged us to take this pledge to end sexual and gender-based violence. I have taken this pledge, and I hope that you will also.

Here is a video of this UN CSW panel presentation, “Global Faith Perspectives on Sexual and Gender-based Violence.”

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