04 December 2023

The elimination of violence against women and girls

As part of the 16 days of activism to eliminate violence against women, Kerry Scarlett, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, shares this blog.

Please note that this blog includes details of gender-based violence that some people may find distressing.  Suggestions of where to find support are at the bottom of the page.

The 25 November marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the beginning of 16 days of Activism.  Initiated by the United Nations, the 16 Days of Activism encourages citizens across the globe to show how much they care about ending violence against women and girls, and to call on governments worldwide to share how they are investing in gender-based violence prevention. 

The statistics shared by the UN remind us that violence against women and girls still remains one of the most prevalent and pervasive human rights violations in the world. They estimate that, globally, 736 million women — almost one in three — have been subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both, at least once in their life. On average, just 5% of government aid is focused on tackling violence against women and girls, and less than 0.2% is directed to its prevention The UN are calling for more investment in women’s organizations, better legislation, prosecution of perpetrators, more services for survivors, and training for law enforcement officials.

The statistics above tell only part of the story. They do not explicitly include the emotional and mental abuse which always accompanies physical abuse, and which is now more widely recognised and understood as deeply damaging and traumatising in itself. The misogyny-which every woman I know has experienced, multiple times.

What does this mean for us as the Methodist Church; for our congregations and the communities in which we are based? It’s important to acknowledge the significant work that has been done within the Church to raise awareness, and to address these issues- through Thursdays in Black, for example.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for us is to recognise that gender based violence is borne out of a wider culture in which people are not seen as equal. My work with Adavu, supporting survivors of modern slavery brought home the intersectional nature of violence against women. In the stories that the survivors share is a constant reminder of how poverty, colonialism, and contexts in which violent conflict is present all contribute to creating a culture in which gender based violence can persist, unchallenged.   

In my own experience of growing up in Northern Ireland, ‘The Troubles’ impacted everyone, both explicitly and implicitly, because of the culture of fear, secrecy and caution that was created. I recommend reading Anna Burns’ novel, ‘The Milkman’ which explores how this culture enabled violence against women and girls to go unnamed and unchecked (warning- this book is not an easy read, and potentially triggering for people who are survivors of any form of violence).

The above examples are of contexts where a culture of violence against women is perhaps more explicit. The challenge to us, throughout the 16 Days of Activism and beyond, is to not only stand in solidarity with our siblings across the Globe, but to also recognise how deeply embedded misogyny and gender based discrimination are embedded in all cultures, all contexts, all communities. That includes our churches. There is always more to learn, always more to do, whilst violence against women and girls persists.

As a survivor of gender-based violence, this blog has been difficult to write. This is despite the fact that the experiences I refer to occurred many, many years ago, and I have been able to flourish due to the support and care of family, friends, and colleagues. Nonetheless, I feel a sense of responsibility, to other survivors, particularly those who are also part of the Methodist Church,   to write with care and integrity so that others may better understand the impact these experiences have in our lives.  

Every survivor’s experience is unique to them. But, in sharing our stories we often discover a common thread; of how the responses of others to what we share, had a significant impact on whether we felt able to leave a situation of violence, whether we felt believed and supported, whether we have been able to not only survive but flourish.  For me, this was because the cumulative impact of what I experienced had a devastating impact on my confidence, and on my sense of self-worth and identity as a woman. I began to think I had, in some way, brought upon myself what had happened to me.  So when others, through their words, or reactions, tried to minimise the impact of what I was sharing, or suggested I was mistaken in my understanding of my experience, I felt even more isolated.

I can, to some extent, understand why people find it difficult to believe that someone they know, someone they believe to be a person of integrity, even a friend, can be capable of abuse. Or why a common response is to minimise or discredit the experience of the survivor, and instead, emphasis the gifts and skills of the one who has abused; as though that cancels out the harm they have caused. It is not uncommon to hear people say things like;   ‘But- they are a really good preacher!’ or ‘They have never been unpleasant to me!’ or even ‘There are so many women making up these false accusations, just to ruin someone’s life!’[1] It can be easier, in the moment, to let casual acts of misogyny go unaddressed, or to minimise their impact. ‘Oh, that’s just how they are, they are just joking!’ 

And yet, as Christians, as Methodists, we know that our calling is to respond to the Gospel of God’s love in Christ and to live out our discipleship in worship and mission. To recognise all human beings as created in God’s image, as people of dignity, value and worth, precious in God’s sight.  To follow the example of Jesus, who, in a culture and context where women and girls had fewer rights, less agency and were denied the opportunity to flourish, not only valued women but actively sought to challenge and transform the way in which they were treated (John 4, John 8, Luke 10).

So, how might, then, are we to  respond when the issue of violence against women and girls seems so overwhelmingly prevalent, and we do not know what we might do, as individuals, or collectively,  to bring about justice and change?

We might begin by finding ways to challenge others when they say or do something misogynistic, or when they minimise or discredit the testimony of women and girls who have experienced violence. Even if the survivor in question is not present, there may well be other survivors who are, but who feel unable to speak out. Others who will be reassured by your example that this is not a space in which a culture of misogyny and discrimination is acceptable.

If we are worship leaders or preachers, we can commit to continuing to enable people to reflect on stories of Scripture which include women and girls, from a different perspective, and to challenge the misogynistic ways in which many of these passages have previously been interpreted. For example, many of us grew up understanding the story of the Woman at the Well (John 4) as the story of a disgraced, even promiscuous woman, who Jesus, in his mercy, still deems worthy of salvation. A more rigorous examination of the culture and context of the time informs us that the woman likely had no say in who she was married to, that her previous husbands had either died, or discarded her, and her life, because of circumstances beyond her control, had been one of turmoil, grief and uncertainty. And yet, Jesus sees in her the gifts, skills, potential that she has never had opportunity to fully realise.

We might chose to raise awareness and to stand in solidarity with other women through joining with Thursdays in Black, or commit to joining with the 16 Days of Activism organised by the UN.  Or, to share the resources produced by Restore, or arrange a conversation with a local charity which supports women /girls who are survivors of gender based violence. If your circuit or district is a member of Citizens UK, you might enquire about joining their campaign to make misogyny a hate crime.

And, in this time of Advent waiting, may we be empowered, as was Mary, by the God who looks on us with favour, who lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and is helper to all who are downcast.

[1] In reality, these remain rare, but appear more prevalent because they are widely reported when they do occur, in contrast to the numerous cases which never come to trial because the victim feels unable to testify. According to the CPS, a report on allegedly false allegations of rape and domestic violence, following a 17- month assessment of prosecutions for perverting the course of justice and wasting police time, showed that during the period covered there were around 5,651 prosecutions for rape but only 35 for making false allegations of rape. There were around 111,891 prosecutions for domestic violence, but only six for making false allegations of domestic violence. cps_vawg_report_2013.pdf

Support
Domestic abuse:
How to get help - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Support for Christian survivors of domestic abuse:
www.restored-uk.org 

 

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