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Churches urged to tackle domestic violence

07 February 2014


FAITH communities, including churches, are reluctant to tackle domestic violence and sexual abuse because of their understanding of their sacred texts, and a lack of understanding of the issues, a conference heard this week.

Leaders of different faiths joined police, local politicians, and professionals for the conference, held on Tuesday at a centre attached to a Sikh temple in Birmingham.

The conference heard that one victim of domestic violence was told that she could not leave her abusive husband unless he was unfaithful, because "that's what the Bible says." Another was pressured by church leaders to retract a statement that she had made to the police.

The organiser of the conference, Kudakwashe Nyakudya, a survivor of domestic violence, established the Kahrmel Wellness organisation to educate faith groups both about the issue. Part of the problem, she said, was the "diminished value of womanhood" in many faiths.

"Women are seen as subjects," she said. "I was told by my ex-husband that many men say that women are the property of their husband, so the husband can do whatever he likes to them. This is a belief system that has been sustained from generation to generation. So part of our work is eradicating domestic over the long haul."

The subject leader in Abuse Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, Dr Lisa Oakley, told the conference that many female victims of domestic violence did not seek help from their churches "because women think their pastors are not interested, or don't know anything about it".

She cited a study of the Roman Catholic Church which reported that 87 per cent of respondents knew someone who was a victim of domestic violence; but 71 per cent said that the Church's teaching on divorce was an obstacle to seeking help.

One in four women is thought to be a victim of domestic violence. Research by the Methodist Church and Jewish groups suggests that this figure is the same in faith communities.

"Research shows that only 14 per cent of victims in churches get help," Ms Nyakudya said. "We have come across a few isolated examples of good practice, but some have restrictions. Some of them are known to signpost [to sources of help], but they can't do anything on their own."

Delegates were shown scientific studies showing that the brain development of unborn babies can be affected if the mother suffers from violence and abuse during pregnancy. The director of the Stefanou Foundation, Amanda McIntyre, said that "by the age of eight, children exposed to domestic abuse from birth to the age of two will have an IQ on average 7.25 lower than those who were not exposed."

An imam from Bradford, Alyas Karmani, spoke about his work with the Amirah Foundation, which works on the streets and in prisons to tackle the "negative masculinity" that leads to the perpetration of violence by young men.

"Many young men now believe that violence is the norm," he said. He blamed what he called the "Grand Theft Auto paradigm", where children are educated by video games and internet porn, and influenced by pop culture, including the performance of the song "Drunk in Love" by Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Grammy Awards ceremony last month, which has been accused of condoning domestic abuse.

Mr Karmani spoke of the gang culture in which many young people's first experience of sex takes place at the age of 13 or 14, and involves groups of boys and girls having sex together, while the incident is filmed to ensure that the boys have control over the girls.

He spoke to one young man in prison who had been involved in this: "He sees girls as worthless objects. He could never see himself in a positive relationship with a woman, because women weren't equals. . . He could not understand that I had been married to the same woman for 20 years."

Mr Karmani also criticised sex education in schools which, he said, taught children how to use a condom and avoid sexually transmitted infections, but did nothing to challenge the myths about relationships, or to support positive partnerships between men and women.

The Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands, Bob Jones, said that it was important for faith communities to tackle domestic violence and sexual abuse within their own communities and organisations; and also to join with the police to tackle the issue in wider society. "The importanceof working together should be heightened," he said, after speaking at the conference.

One of those attending the conference was the Canon Liturgist at Birmingham Cathedral, the Revd Janet Chapman. She said that the Church should start "taking apart . . . the very difficult passages about divorce" and "see them in context". They should not be used as "an excuse to perpetuate relationships where the damage has been done, or putting glue on a relationship where the vows have been broken . . . by one of the partners."

On Monday, the General Synod will debate gender-based violence, after a report by the Mission and Public Affairs Council (News, 24 January). The motion before Synod calls for support for "measures to bring perpetrators to account" and encouragement for "boys and men to stand against gender-based violence".

It also calls on "dioceses, deaneries, and parishes" to "seek practical approaches" to implement an Anglican Consultative Council resolution on "preventing and eliminating gender-based violence".

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