Religious Leaders Stand in Solidarity with Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence – United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict – un.org

One, insignificant girl – someone no one would have paid attention to, would have shoved into the corner or told to fetch the water or sweep the floor; one insignificant girl – Jesus takes her hand, he tells her to stand. She was dead, but now she is alive! She is no longer lying on the bed silent and ill, she is not even sitting. She is standing, standing tall! Jesus has raised this weak female child from the dead, and she is alive! She is standing! And he tells everyone around to feed her, to nurture her, to look after her. She is a precious child of God. She must be seen. She must be supported and nurtured, loved and cared for.  Talitha Cum, Girl! Stand up, be counted! Know you are loved for the precious child of God you are!

The above was written as a short reflection on a passage from the Gospel of Mark, 5:35-end. It comes at the end of a set of guidelines to gender and inter-religious dialogue, written as a response to some of the experiences Christian women were bumping up against when working in the realm of interfaith dialogue. These guidelines were presented in a workshop at the World Council of Churches 10th World Assembly in Busan, Korea in 2013.

Times have changed. We’ve had a lot of growing up to do.

At the time these guidelines were written, we were aware that hate crime against Muslim women in the UK, Europe, and the US had grown. Women were not only verbally abused, but subject to having clothing ripped from them in public, and to violent attack. Concern over the growing number of the world’s displaced was just beginning to happen.

Since then we have seen the numbers of displaced persons grow astronomically. The perception in the mind of the ‘western’ world is that these are predominantly young men escaping, abandoning women and families to violent conflict and war. But the truth is much more complicated. In each and every side session that I or colleagues attended in the United Nations 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, the focus of which was the world’s displaced persons, the importance of including women and young people at every level of development and peacebuilding work was emphasised. The reasons given were that both were subject to exploitation – whether it be sexual violence, forced labour or forced to fight, and kill, as soldiers. Time after time I listened to women demanding justice for the violence and violations inflicted upon them.

It was admitted that the traditional method of helicoptering into a distressed area to distribute aid, and helicoptering out again, was no longer fit for purpose. It assumes a catastrophe will be short-lived, and that the country affected possesses the necessary infrastructure and resources for revitalisation. But currently the average time period for recovery is around 17 years – and getting longer. It was pointed out that those most in need, the elderly, disabled, women with small children, and women in general, were the least able to access aid – which tended to remain in the hands of powerful men. And that corruption was rife.

Those working in development know that if you include women at all levels, then the health, education, and financial well-being of both women and men improve. Don’t include women – it just doesn’t happen. The same is true of peacebuilding. Include women and you have a longer-lasting peace. It’s not because women have all the answers – but neither do the men. We do better when we work together.

Women are fierce in fighting for justice in the world, for peace in their homes and neighbourhoods – women tend to view the whole of the world, the earth, as home. It is women who have traditionally tended the fields and ensure their family, and their neighbours, are fed and clothed and housed and have their needs met.

I have come to know lionesses. And I use that terminology purposefully. Lionesses are the hunters, the providers of food, they run faster, feed their children, feed their pride – which are mostly female – and fight fiercely for the lives of their cubs. The women I have come to know are full of courage, because they have to be.

One woman I have had the privilege to meet, faced down Boko Haram, sheltering women and girls at the height of the Chibok kidnappings. She phoned me during that time, and I really had no idea what she was facing. This hugely brave, powerful, young woman found the heads of children she was teaching left on her doorstep. She was raped and beaten herself. She went with other women into the forest where they had heard a village was attacked. They buried the women who had been killed. But they also cut open the bellies of dead women who were pregnant in an effort to save their children. Some of the babies lived, and some died. Those who died, my friend dug into the earth with her bare hands in order to bury.

Another friend has been helping a girl who was kidnapped from her family in a country in mid-Africa. When trafficking gangs discover a vulnerable child has a family member living and working in Europe, they kidnap them, and take them into Libya (to concentration camps the EU and UK part fund), where they are filmed being tortured in an effort to demand ransom from their family.

Yet another, in the Far East, discovered her correspondence was being monitored after she wrote an academic article criticising the practices of her government. She was wanting advice as to how to safely stay in contact those she was working with.

There is the case of Asia Bibi, and so many others, who have been caught up in accusations of blasphemy – excuse to ‘ethnically cleanse’ an area of a minority presence. Women tend to be the most vulnerable to these kind of attacks, and need the support to defend themselves in such contexts.

A friend in the UK is under threat of violence, has an alarm going straight to police on her at all times, has to monitor the movements of her children – all because she has spoken out about misogyny within her own faith community. She is not Muslim, but rather from an Eastern tradition. Friends check in with her from time to time just to ensure she is ok. Physically she is being protected – it is morale and mental health we are concerned about.

In parts of North London, Jewish schoolchildren are harassed on public transport on a daily basis. Parents have to constantly deal with how to protect their children on the way to and from school. Jewish schools regularly teach strategies for survival in the classroom and place of worship should they be subject to a terror attack.

I myself have been subjected to stalking, knocks on the door in the middle of the night, the occasional troll with abuse and threat – all because of my work in interfaith dialogue, and for acting as observer in communities during far right protests. This began to increase about the time Jo Cox was murdered, and has continued. We live in a country where MPs are regularly threatened with violence, rape and death. We have a Prime Minister whose comments about letterboxes have led directly to Muslim women being attacked and abused in the street. A Muslim friend living in France, and who chooses not to wear the hijab, contends government authorities place more concern on the choice of clothing women wear, rather than dealing with those who are threatening violence.

One of my friends has taught English to unaccompanied minors, some of them teenage girls who had lived for several months camping in Calais. She didn’t like to ponder what the girls had been through in order to get to the UK. They had travelled a very long way from the southern hemisphere.

And there are all the mini-aggressions which happen on a daily basis. Each one of these remind women that we are vulnerable to physical abuse and rape. The usual response of organisations puts concerns down to ‘female hysteria’ – and this includes our churches. It’s not just the trolls on social media, but all the little comments about appearance, about speaking out, about being ‘strident’ or aggressive, about just being women in a traditionally male space.

For those of us working in the area of inter-religious dialogue, we are standing with women of all faith and none as each face these issues – and these are increasing in intensity and in regularity rather than diminishing, with the rise of far right and populist mindsets. The two go hand in hand.

So when men see us women gather, and cook food, and laugh and joke, and nurture our children together – we are not being ‘nice’ and cozy and comfortable. We are lionesses – feeding our families with more than food, and lending strength to one another, sharing our stories and experiences, developing strategies to protect one another, our communities, and our world. Sometimes we need that space to breathe, to feel safe. Because each day, we must consider what clothes we wear, whether or not to smile – even when we don’t feel like it, whether to cross the road when a group of men is coming the other way, whether the taxi we get into will take us where we need to go, who it is that is on the bus with us, and the list goes on.

When it comes to inter-religious dialogue and gender, there is even more work to be done. Because women meet these issues all the time. For many of us, it can be a matter of life and death. The friendships and alliances we build are vital for our survival. Where the church is in the majority, there is a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our neighbours. And when the church is a minority, the same is also true – even when we are the ones under threat. In a recent meeting, we heard how, living in a part of the world where the church is very much a minority, and under threat of violence from the Taliban and others, a bishop made a point of reaching out to his local imam, visiting him, developing a relationship with him. That gesture of outreach developed into strong ties of friendship.

When Coptic Christian workers were killed on a beach in Libya, a reporter visited the village in Egypt where they came from and spoke to the families. He asked the mother of two brothers who had been killed what she would say to their killer if he walked through their street today. She replied that she would invite him into her home and she would love him. She would feed him and give him the love and forgiveness he must have been missing in his life.

Issues mentioned above, issues such as hate crime and violence – where around 75% of the victims, at least in the UK, are women, the lack of inclusion, threat to life and limb and of rape, sexual abuse and harassment, must be included when we are discussing inter-religious dialogue, especially in supporting the women who are confronting them. The toll on mental health alone is significant. Many women come from contexts where to talk about such issues is still considered shameful. And if it was discovered that a woman had been raped or even touched or beaten, she could be subject to honour killing, and at the very least shunned or unable to marry. These are not easy subjects for survivors to discuss in mixed company. Sometimes, through well-meaning naivete, men will ask about these subjects – not realising that for some, for most, it is a painful subject. Asking women to speak about the violence or abuse they have gone through is to ask them to re-live that incident. And it brings up all the pain of the trauma. It must be remembered that 1 in 4 women have been subject to sexual abuse. So when these questions are asked, you can’t know that the smiling, happy, highly articulate and able woman you are sitting with has not also been subject to this kind of abuse. To bring it up as a point of academic interest may be asking her to dig down into a part of her life she may not want to share at that particular moment. It is not an intellectual interest or exercise. It is real life experience for many. And none of them wear a badge telling you.

This is a rather impassioned plea that the guidelines put together so carefully, and I admit, intentionally put together in a manner that would not come across as strident or to put men on the back foot, that there be an updated version, including much of the stories mentioned, but with much more input from Christian women involved in such dialogue from across the globe and outlining the issues they are facing in their day to day experiences. Maybe this time it is about throwing out a challenge to inclusiveness, sensitivity, and courageous action from our churches.