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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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain