Days of Activism starting point for anti-violence action

Churches need to find ways to be outspoken in their condemnation of physical and sexual violence, while also rethinking how they might better support and affirm survivors, writes Prof David Tombs.

Next Wednesday is the day marked out by the United Nations (since 1999) as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Global statistics suggest violence against women and girls is still a problem in every society, and the scale and size of the problem are often underestimated.

There are often still myths and misperceptions about the nature and form of the violence.

For example, often the greatest threat is seen as coming from strangers.

This can lead to a lack of attention to the violence which takes place in the family, or in intimate relationships.

The New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse 2015 Data Summary for Violence Against Women indicates that 76% of recorded assaults against females are committed by an offender identified as family, 17% by someone known to the victim but outside the family, and only 7% by a stranger.

In recent decades, the UN has committed more and more attention to ending violence against women and girls.

In 1993, Boutros Boutros-Ghali adopted the the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

In 2008, Ban Ki-moon launched the UNiTE to End Violence against Women, to co-ordinate the efforts of UN agencies, national governments, civil society organisations, and individuals, who are working on the issue.

The days between November 25 and December 10 (UN Human Rights Day) have become an international focal point in support of the UNiTE campaign, and related campaigns like the White Ribbon campaign, in the form of a ''16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence'' campaign.

Some churches and church organisations, like the World Council of Churches, have become increasingly outspoken on violence against women, and actively support the 16 Days of Activism.

This year, many churches will use the 16 Days to highlight issues facing girls and young women in education.

You might ask ''Is this really what churches should be giving their attention to?'' or ''What difference can the churches make?''.

Often, the vital role churches and religious groups can play is missed or undervalued.

Church initiatives like the international We Will Speak Out coalition, which focuses on sexual violence, can make a huge difference in addressing hidden or neglected violence.

There is growing research that points to the positive impact churches and faith organisations can have.

The report Silent No More, by Tearfund in Africa, suggests that in some countries the church is seen as the institution that is best placed to help survivors of gender-based violence in conflicts.

In some cases, churches can be the only front-line service available, and their presence and accessibility in the community is a key asset.

In countries like New Zealand, public services are better developed, and the church's provision of safety and a practical response to family violence is more likely to be through specialist organisations, rather than through the local church.

There is less immediate pressure to be involved in quite the same way, but churches in New Zealand still have a crucial role to play.

In particular, the churches can take a lead in changing public perceptions and attitudes.

Of special relevance to the churches is that, although the change required includes more outspoken opposition to violence against women, there also often needs to be a change in attitudes to survivors.

All too often, women who experience family violence can feel shamed by their experience, and are reluctant to speak about it.

Regrettably, the churches can make these feelings worse rather than better.

This is unlikely to be the intention, but it is often the consequence of misguided church interpretations of biblical passages on marriage, obedience, headship, sacrifice and suffering.

Likewise, a distorted theology of sex and sin can cause additional suffering for survivors of sexual violence.

Many survivors of sexual violence, both female and male, report a sense of stigma and shame, which the silence of churches only deepens.

The churches therefore need to find ways to be outspoken in their condemnation of physical and sexual violence, while also rethinking how they might better support and affirm survivors.

This will often involve discussion of how some church teachings and practices may be more part of the problem rather than part of the answer.

A lot of good practical advice is now available on this, but some churches have been slow to embrace it.

A second key challenge for the churches is that often the leadership (and much of the practical work) on these issues is left to a small group of the already committed.

Typically, these are women who have been working on the issue for years, often in women's networks within the churches.

One of the central messages of the global White Ribbon campaign is that violence against women should be a concern for everyone, and not just women.

Men need to become better informed on gender-based violence, and more outspoken in their opposition to it.

For everyone within the churches, being involved in the 16 Days of Activism, especially through resources offered by church organisations, is a good way to be part of this positive process.

• David Tombs is Howard Paterson professor of theology and public issues, and director of the centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago.

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