Ending violence against women – in the world and in the Church

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By Susie Flashman Jarvis

Sunday 25th November is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

These few facts show why it is needed:

  • 1 in 3 women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, most frequently by an intimate partner
  • Only 52% of women married or in a union freely make their own decisions about sexual relations, contraceptive use and health care
  • 1 in 2 women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or family in 2012; while only 1 out of 20 men were killed under similar circumstances
  • Violence against women is as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.

The above horrifying statistics and my experience as a woman, daughter, writer, coach and counsellor compel me to respond.

Over the last 20 years I have sat with many women who have experienced first-hand domestic exploitation at the hands of men. These perpetrators have been fathers, partners, brothers, bosses, cousins and random strangers who believe it is within their rights to touch, abuse and help themselves to women. As a writer and someone who knows from experience the effects of abuse on a woman, I believe it is vital that we shine a light and bring a halt to the massive imbalance within the genders.

The issue of abuse is also prevalent within faith communities including Christian churches. The latest statistics from In Churches too: Church responses to domestic abuse: a case study in Cumbria reveal the true extent of the problem:

  • 1 in 4 women in church have experienced an abusive act in a current relationship
  • Only 2 in 7 churchgoers believe their church is equipped to deal with domestic abuse
  • In 57% of the domestic abuse cases, the perpetrator was a Christian
  • In just over half the cases, children under the age of 18 were living at home

I have had abused young women call me for advice, and on more than one occasion they have reported that, in response to being informed about physical assault, their pastor has asked what they are doing to ‘wind up’ their husband. Older women who suffer abuse state that they made their marriage vow and must live with it. Incredible as it may seem, implicitly and explicitly, all too often the church seems to lay the responsibility for dealing with the issue at the victim’s door. This makes it very hard for women to know who to speak to, and by increasing a sense of shame makes it much harder to leave.

Conversely, the degree of shame attached to women caught up in domestic abuse is often exacerbated by those with little understanding who blithely ask, ’Why don’t you just leave?’ The cycle of abuse is one where women, who often love their perpetrator, are trapped inside, making it very hard to act without external support – and often protection. It runs from a honeymoon period where all seems well, to a time of unpredictability, onto outright abuse – be it physical, sexual or emotional – before intense apologies and promises to change. The cycle then begins again as the woman’s love is preyed upon.

The complexities of the nature of abuse cause a woman to experience extreme shame and guilt. Shame as they believe the lies told them by their perpetrator and guilt that they are afraid to break free, or blamed for causing their abuser’s behaviour. Sitting face to face with a woman who has suffered extreme harm at the hands of a perpetrator is a sobering and humbling experience. It takes a high level of bravery to finally break free of the complexities that often keep women captive. These women come from all walks of life, not one demographic is immune. They have often managed the traumas by shutting down and putting to one side the feelings that rise within them. Often it is only when the children suffer direct harm that they feel empowered to leave. After all it is one thing to suffer yourself, another thing entirely to see your child hurt – and all abuse impacts kids.

My work with many children of varying ages revealed the trauma affecting their lives. They would play out their anxieties in sand trays, setting up complex scenarios to give voice to their fears. Other children, finally safe from the confines of a controlled and scary house, would run riot as their feelings finally surface. Some would become angry and would use puppets and art to reveal the extent of their outrage. Whilst other children became silent and almost invisible. The truth is that violence against women has devastating effects on how many children’s lives may turn out. The harm done is significant and can limit them ever reaching their true potential.

What can you do?

Why not support a charity like Restored that is challenging the status quo and bringing change.

Ask questions, don’t just ignore the child or woman with a visible bruise. Too many women have told me that no one asked them, they thought they were invisible.

There is a saying ‘Evil prospers when good men (and women) do nothing!

Don’t be one of them.

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