No More Silence

No More Silence

Despite years of advocacy and work, violence against women remains a silent issue in many churches and in society at large.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Jeffords, senior pastor of Covenant United Methodist Church in Cordova, Tenn., has seen first-hand how violence against women goes unacknowledged in local congregations.

“I’ve encountered a conspiracy of silence in local congregations where people are not sure what to do with it,” he said. “They can’t believe that someone they sit with in the pew, pray with and read the Bible with, is a victim, or capable of being or a perpetrator.”

United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men are set to take action in a joint effort to address domestic violence. The organizations will collaborate on programs, training and resources on domestic violence awareness and prevention to be used in local churches.

The Rev. Kathleen Stone, chaplain at United Methodist Women-owned and -operated Church Center for the United Nations in New York City, has also witnessed the silence and lack of action on this issue Mr. Jeffords has. She emphasized the statistic that 1-in-4 women will be victims of sexual or physical violence at some point in their lives.

“If we really believed that these are the facts, wouldn’t we be preaching differently, teaching differently? Wouldn’t we be working with men and boys in a very intentional way so that they might really understand what’s going on? Wouldn’t we reveal women’s concerns in sermons and liturgies? I don’t see this happening. I see it all swept under the rug. I see good, good people saying they don’t know what to do about it all.”

To counter this silence and lack of action, Ms. Stone works closely with Ecumenical Women, a coalition of mainly Protestant denominations and global ecumenical organizations, which has been working on women’s issues, particularly issues of violence for many years.

Most recently, Ecumenical Women advocated at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women against impunity for the perpetrators of violence against women. According to Ms. Stone, most of the world’s women have no recourse when violence against them occurs.

“The impunity of the perpetrators and public outcry often increases or decreases depending upon a woman’s race, status and class,” she explained. “We have police departments, for example, that don’t respond or worse, add to the violation or sometimes are the violation.”

Role of faith communities

Building awareness is key to addressing violence against women, according to Keely Swan who coordinates the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) and is a member of Bridgewater United Methodist Church in Bridgewater, N.J.

The 16 Days Campaign, which runs annually from Nov. 25 (International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women) through Dec. 10 (Human Rights Day), has worked for 20 years to garner international and national attention for the work that people are doing locally.

“The goals of the campaign are to raise awareness and to hold local and national governments accountable to the promises they have made on these issues,” she explained. “Although people use the campaign to address various forms of violence against women from different perspectives, the emphasis is on women’s human rights and the importance of global solidarity.”

Ms. Swan said that while violence isn’t necessarily increasing overall, there are new forms of violence against women developing.

“There are definite signs of progress in terms of new laws and increased global attention,” she said. “But new forms of violence are showing up. For example, in the United States and elsewhere we’re seeing new forms of dating violence such as ‘digital abuse,’ which involves excessive texting or online stalking to monitor young women’s movements. Another example of a newer form of violence has been the rise in acid burning violence in recent years, particularly in South Asia.”

Ms. Swan said CWGL’s work aims to take on systemic issues of violence against women.

“We want to address the structures that are in place that allow violence to continue and to take new forms,” she said. “All forms of gender-based violence — both new and old — relate back to the inequality of gender relations. Violence against women happens everywhere; it just takes different forms. It’s about control and power over women’s bodies, over women’s movements and over women’s rights.”

Dr. Renee Campbell, the executive director of United Methodist Women-supported Wesley House in Louisville, Ky., and a certified domestic violence trainer, sees training as an essential component to addressing violence against women.

She has worked to integrate domestic violence training into all levels of Wesley House’s work with the community. When she reviewed the statistics on domestic violence, she saw that when women sought more education or work, abuse tended to begin or escalate.

“We had mainly women in our computer training classes, so I wove domestic violence training into the computer training,” she said.

They brought in a local organization, Center for Women and Families, to do the training. Partnering with local organizations can be key to addressing violence against women, especially in churches, Ms. Campbell said. She emphasized bringing the knowledge and skills of local organizations into the local church.

“Clergy need to become educated about family domestic violence and abuse,” she said. “They need to be able to integrate the knowledge from the public sector — that expertise — into the skills that they use in providing pastoral counseling.”

The Rev. Dr. Aleese Moore-Orbih, director of training and consulting at FaithTrust Institute works with clergy to address preventing and responding to domestic and sexual assault in faith communities.

“We want to empower laity and clergy at the local level to put preventive measures in place — we want to help non-abusive men to learn how to communicate to all men that power over women and children is not a Christian principle or divine right,” she explained.

FaithTrust works ecumenically to equip and educate religious leaders to better respond to domestic violence. It helps churches prioritize the steps to having safe and healthy congregations.

“We put together prevention and intervention programs for churches that will not only achieve their goals but work within their budget,” she said. “A safe congregation is the first thing that’s needed for women to speak up and for children to come forward. They need to hear a message in their church from the pulpit, that family violence is not acceptable — it is a not a Christian value. If those messages are not being preached, then people won’t speak up. If there’s silence, then congregants imagine what clergy might say. They might imagine that the pastor won’t understand, believe their story or that they will side with the perpetrator.”

Mr. Jeffords agreed that preaching and teaching is crucial and added that small movements can also be effective.

“If someone visits my office and I put out some books about violence against women, it can make a difference,” he said. “It can start a conversation.”

Ms. Stone suggested placing posters in every church restroom stall with phone numbers to call if persons are caught in a destructive relationship. She also called for churches to have classes for men and boys about positive models of masculinities and about healthy relationships. Ms. Moore-Orbih explained the importance of such education.

“If we understand that domestic violence is really not a women’s issue — that the problem is in the rules and laws that men have — then we need men who know that domestic violence is wrong,” she said. “We need men at the forefront saying this behavior is unacceptable and not Christian.”

She emphasized that the church needs to take action at all levels to end violence against women.

“As the church, we have yet to take the position to stand up against violence against women,” Ms. Moore-Orbih said. “It is an international epidemic. The world is waiting for us to take a stand.”


FaithTrust Institute

FaithTrust provides communities and advocates with the tools and knowledge they need to address the religious and cultural issues related to abuse. They provide resources that include training, consulting and educational materials.

Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL)

CWGL develops and facilitates women’s leadership for women’s human rights and social justice around the world. CWGL aims to take on systemic issues of violence against women. Each year the organization recognizes “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence,” Nov. 25- Dec. 10. Go to CWGL’s website for information.

Posted or updated: 5/31/2010 11:00:00 PM
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