By Solange De Santis
Religious organizations and faith leaders have key roles to play in helping women who are survivors of violence – including sexual assault committed in conflict situations — according to a panel of social activists at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York.
The discussion was hosted on March 18 by We Will Speak Out, a movement of faith groups dedicated to ending silence and stigma concerning sexual and gender-based violence, and Side by Side, a network of people of faith committed to removing barriers to gender justice. It was a side event at the UNCSW’s 61st meeting, held March 13-24.
The theme – “Leaving no one behind” — linked women’s social and economic empowerment to recovery from gender-based violence.
Kikala Isobel Thomas, who is from Angola, talked about her work with the Savings with Education program – small, local, savings and lending groups supported by Episcopal Relief & Development.
“Women are behind men in access to credit. Survivors of violence are unemployed. They care for children and sick people and don’t have time to look for economic opportunities,” said Thomas, a community-development coordinator in the Anglican Diocese of Angola with the Mothers’ Union, a worldwide organization that developed within the Anglican Communion and supports families.
Savings with Education groups pool funds, then make loans to small businesses, often women-run. Giving assault survivors the means to support themselves and their families helps “break the silence” around sexual violence, Thomas said.
Angola experienced a 27-year civil war that ended in 2002. Thomas said she was a survivor of violence who found new hope. “My life was difficult. I was not able to have a house. I had a personal goal. I wanted to reach my children higher. From a violence survivor, I am now a provider.”
We Will Speak Out launched in 2011 as a response to a report from Tearfund, with then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams hosting the launch, said the panel’s moderator, the Rev. Amy Gopp, vice president of external relations with IMAWorldHealth Tearfund is a British-based anti-poverty charity.
Panelist Maggie Sandilands, who works for Tearfund on humanitarian responses to sexual and gender-based violence, said faith groups could help minimize the social stigma surrounding sexual assault. Husbands and families often reject survivors, driving them into poverty, she noted.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a 16-year-old survivor was rejected by her family. “Volunteers took Mary into their home, but the pastor of the local church is also a volunteer. He is influential. He talked to the family, and they are reconciled,” Sandilands said.
“Faith groups need to be part of the response. That is what survivors are asking for … they want [faith groups] to be a safe place. They want to turn to faith leaders for help,” she said. For many survivors, she noted, religious leaders have contributed to the stigma.
Another panelist, the Rev. Javier Marquez Acosta, said that his country, Colombia, had seen armed conflict for 60 years, with eight million survivors of violence. “We don’t talk about it that much, so one of the key roles of the Catholic Church is to point out it is a huge problem and we need to do something about it.”
The church can help make the issue visible, help women regain their dignity and even provide physical protection, said Acosta, director of the Social Pastoral Secretariat of the Colombian Bishops Conference in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Montelibano, Córdoba. “An important role for the church is to be a bridge for survivors with other organizations that could support them, where the government does not have much credibility due to corruption.”
UNCSW is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment.