More than a prayer: Faith communities’ response to sexual violence

A dialogue between Archbishop Rowan Williams and Michel Sidibé of UNAIDS for World Aids Day.

Excerpt from the letter of Gracia Violeta Ross, co-founder of Bolivia's first organization for people living with HIV

“As the daughter of an evangelical pastor, a rape survivor and an HIV positive advocate, these issues [of church responses to sexual violence] are very close to my heart. I can tell you the worst experience of my life was the experience of rape. I remember a Christian organisation tried to address these issues, but it was not easy. Sadly, some of the reasons were that most church and religious leaders are men, and, as such, they often fail to recognise the power they have. Yes, they might be Christian, but they are still men who grow up in the teachings of a dominating gender system, which hardly recognised the voices and rights of women. Also, when trying to do some work related to sexual violence, often in the religious communities we tend to 'spiritualise' the topic. Addressing sexual violence needs prayers but much more than prayers.”

Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS

Tomorrow is World Aids Day.

It is unacceptable that one in three women around the world will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

On World Aids Day, we celebrate our continuing progress against the HIV epidemic. But we must recognize again this year that women and girls still face the higher risk of infection - and why, gender inequity is the fuel that feeds the fire of violence against women and girls, and it is both a cause and consequence of women’s increased vulnerability to HIV.

In many societies, women and girls face unequal opportunities, discrimination, and human rights violations. And while laws may exist on the books to protect their rights and give them greater opportunities, these rights aren’t always fulfilled or supported by society and its leaders—including faith leaders.

I recently received a letter from Gracia Violeta Ross, an outspoken activist for women who have survived rape and are living with HIV — like herself.

As many survivors do, she turned to her church for support, but found it lacking in many ways. I agree with her that it takes more than prayer to heal and empower women who have endured sexual violence—to transform them from victims to survivors. It takes compassionate leadership that reaches beyond scripture and traditional rites and teachings. 

While the church — or the synagogue, temple or mosque — can be a rock-solid source of unmoving strength to a community, it must also be able to respond sensitively to the needs of women who have been hurt. For example, can an institution whose leaders are almost always men truly perceive the fears and hear the voices of women at risk of violence? And when it advocates for strong families, can it appreciate that the danger to women and girls often lurks inside their own homes? Do care, support and justice extend to women who sell sex or use drugs? Or who are transgendered?  Yes. There should be no line that distinguishes who deserves and who does not.

Women who have been victims of violence need many things: To have their dignity restored and to be protected from stigma and shame. To ensure their attackers brought to justice. To have access to psychological and medical care, including sexual and reproductive health. And ultimately, to be empowered, like Violeta, as leaders in achieving full equity in their worlds.

My question to Archbishop Williams is this: beyond prayers and spiritual comfort, what more can the church offer to survivors of sexual violence?

Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Gracia Violeta’s letter is moving and disturbing. You are quite right to underline the concerns it raises about how religion can sometimes reinforce violent and oppressive attitudes to women, how it can help to silence honesty and protest, and so can make even worse the position of women who are at risk of and from HIV infection.

What can be done? A lot has already been initiated to challenge the distorted theology that can underlie violent or collusive behaviour. Many churches I know have taken the biblical story of the rape of King David’s daughter Tamar as a starting point for rethinking their approach and clarifying the unacceptability of the male behaviour depicted in this and other stories. If we are to make progress here, we have to expose toxic and destructive patterns of masculinity. And for cultures steeped in the Bible, it is important to start by showing that the Bible does not endorse or absolve violence against women.

But in addition, there needs to be a coherent and persistent message about breaking the silence. The "Silent No More” campaign has found wide support; and the launch in 2011 of the We Will Speak Out coalition of faith groups and faith leaders, in the wake of the research done by Tearfund's Silent No More, has proved a benchmark for challenging communities and leaders who fail to see this as a priority. Our own Anglican archbishops from DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi have had a leading role in this. And last year’s conference of Anglican primates issued a full and robust statement on gender-related violence which has now been strongly reaffirmed by the global Anglican Consultative Council.

These policy statements rest on a lot of impressive grassroots practice, linking survivors to medical, legal and counselling support, and local livelihood training schemes – and also naming and shaming the culture of impunity, especially the impunity of those who in any way exercise power, in churches or elsewhere. But so often in my own travels I have found the most important service the Church can offer is to be a place where it is safe to speak about what has happened. Last year in DR Congo, and more recently in a Church-based centre in Papua New Guinea, I had the painful privilege of spending time with women who had accessed the services offered by the Church and were finding a new voice and new courage to confront those who had humiliated and abused them, and to support one another. These responses by local faith communities are inspiring, but need to be far more widely replicated.

Building a new culture of openness and mutual support is essential. Out of this grows the sort of comprehensive change we want to see – change in understandings of masculinity, the end of paralysing stigma, a new approach to legal redress, a place for the leadership and advocacy of survivors themselves, an audible voice for women.

We sometimes speak of a fivefold response – Prevention, Protection, Provision of services, Prosecution and Partnerships. All I have mentioned so far illustrates how this looks in practice. We are morally and religiously bound to give the highest priority to making this response a universal reality, and are glad to have the support and solidarity of UNAIDS in this. It is a calling that has been laid upon us by a God whose will is always for human dignity and compassion.  

How can UN agencies strengthen their partnership with faith communities to respond more effectively to ending sexual violence?

Response from Michel Sidibé

For myself, I make a point of sitting down with religious leaders and faith-based organizations in the countries I visit and talk about ways to partner for people and communities. It is a priority of UNAIDS to engage religious leaders for thoughtful action on critical human rights issues such as sexual violence. In the coming year, I will be traveling to many countries which have high levels of sexual and gender based  violence and mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and will convene with local religious leaders and organizations that are working specifically on these issues.

UNAIDS is currently partnering with the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, the Global Network of People living with HIV and the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Affected by HIV to develop a framework for dialogue around HIV. We intend to give religious leaders, people living with HIV, women who have experienced rape, and people most vulnerable to HIV who have been stigmatized greater support and guidance for discussing these difficult issues, hopefully leading to faith community responses like the ones the Archbishop witnessed in Africa. I am confident that we will all come to greater understanding through this process, and the lives of women, their families and their society will be improved and enriched.

HIV positive women make red ribbons, the universal symbol of awareness and support for those living with HIV. Photograph: Getty Images
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Leicester City's ascent shows how being a good loser can make you a great winner.

Claudio Ranieri wasn't expected to take a team to the top of Premier League. But dignity can earn you second chances.

Dignity isn’t so dated after all. Claudio Ranieri, champion; José Mourinho, unemployed. Dignity, it turns out, earns you second chances. It’s the Machiavels who run out of time.

The story of Leicester City’s Premier League triumph – one of sport’s finest – ended at Stamford Bridge on 2 May when Tottenham, Leicester’s nearest challengers, only managed a draw against Chelsea. In some respects, it also began there. Superficially, Ranieri “failed” during his stint as Chelsea’s manager from 2000 to 2004. Yet he never lost his dignity in one of football’s craziest jobs. He was courteous and amused to the end: the same qualities that helped to make him a winner at Leicester.

People remembered, both inside football and beyond. Ranieri’s sense of perspective and lightness of touch, evident during those hard times at Chelsea, brought him well-wishers in his better days at Leicester. His dignity as a loser has been recast as a benevolent and advanced form of strategy. Let’s hope that it is widely copied.

There is a danger of reading too much into Leicester’s splendid success. A small industry is already specialising in undercutting and puncturing overblown editorialising on “the meaning of Leicester”. Fine. Let scepticism have its moment, too.

But can we agree on a compromise? The romantics must concede that Leicester have a darker side, too. It wasn’t all charm and self-sacrificial teamwork. There was also a good measure of sports science, data analytics and street smarts. The Premier League has not become a laboratory of sporting social justice overnight. Leicester, it is true, also benefit from foreign capital. And the big guns – with their even bigger bank balances – will surely be back, sooner rather than later. History may yet record Leicester’s time at the top as a surprising interregnum in a war between giant dynasties.

Yes, I concede all of that. But will the cynics at least acknowledge some happier truths? First, a central defect of the Prem­iership has been its lack of competitive equipoise. It’s a great show but it always flirted with dangerous predictability.

Even its magical moments, such as Manchester City’s last-minute triumph in 2012, were unlikely only in the manner in which the story unfolded. Goliath beat David – on the day and over the course of the whole season – but it just took him a long time to finish the job. Yet we hailed the story, even though the favourites won, as evidence of redemptive uncertainty. Now, by contrast, we have the real thing with Leicester City’s win: genuine surprise, sport’s most precious currency.

Second, it’s time to wave goodbye to the lazy assumption, increasingly common in modern sport, that there is something intrinsically advanced about nastiness in players or managers. This meme continually creeps into the way we think about success. A manager’s rant is explained away as: “He really hates losing.” A scarcely veiled personal attack on a rival is justified as: “Real winners are all a bit like that.” Sneering contempt is whitewashed away, accepted as a burning hunger to win.

It all adds up, logically and unavoidably, not only to a lame justification of unpleasantness but also an implicit attack on behaving decently. If we say that John McEnroe’s racket-smashing is what makes him a winner, we are subtly belittling his opponent for keeping his cool.

In sport’s professional era, “good loser” has turned from one of the highest compliments into a patronising put-down. Being a good loser used to refer to behaviour when the ball was no longer in play, a virtue unconnected with winning or losing out on the pitch. Garry Sobers, Bobby Jones and Stefan Edberg were good losers. They were pretty good winners, too.

Somehow the notion of being a good loser turned 180 degrees, especially in English sport, which suffers from self-hating guilt about amateur values. It came to describe someone who is literally adept at losing – comfortable with defeat, adjusted to living that way. This accusation was levelled at Ranieri at the end of his term at Chelsea, as he suffered the humiliation of a public search for a replacement. José Mourinho, the chosen one, turned the knife when he was asked why Chelsea were sacking Ranieri. “I was told they wanted to win,” he scoffed. Mourinho voiced a widely held view: in place of a good loser would come a serial winner.

And now? The good loser is still with us, now a great winner, smiling and deflecting the credit. Ranieri almost missed the match that secured Leicester City’s victory on Monday night, because he had flown to Rome to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother. A little too stage-managed? If this is PR, let’s have more of it.

What of the bad loser who knew only victory? Mourinho is casting around hopefully, looking for another chance to mould a dressing room in his image. Yet it’s a risk, isn’t it, to give power to bad losers? And his prospective patrons are feeling risk-averse. The catastrophes of Real Madrid and his second stint at Chelsea, in which Mourinho lost the team, are hard to forget. Bad losers, contrary to the myth, are risky propositions because the earth is scorched when things don’t go according to plan.

Ranieri left Chelsea in good shape, having signed or identified most of the players who would go on to become the core of the team’s glory years. Mourinho, by contrast, left Chelsea in despair, the players seemingly mutinous and losing matches almost by design. Talent is powerful and Mourinho may be back. But it’s time to de-correlate winning and unpleasantness.

Machiavelli had the best aphorisms but he wasn’t always right. Leicester are champions and a good loser wears the crown. How much more can sport do?

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred