Can religious leaders protect women from rape?

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 11 June 2014 20:41 GMT

A girl from Peul tribe stands in a village outside Bambari May 30, 2014. Peul cattle herder tribes are Muslims and are often attacked by Anti-Balaka Christian militia. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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Religious leaders are both influential leaders of their communities and confidantes of the people they serve

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In many parts of the world when a woman is raped, one of the first people she turns to is her religious leader. And the way her rabbi, priest or imam responds can be critical to her ability to heal and seek justice.

Religious leaders are both influential leaders of their communities and confidantes of the people they serve.

In war zones, religious leaders are also key to reducing people’s vulnerability to sexual violence, Miriam Maluwa, law and human rights advisor at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said.

“Faith-based organisations are really the entry point to the community, to changing behaviours,” Maluwa told a meeting on the fringe of a four-day global summit on sexual violence in conflict taking place in London.

But religious leaders should start talking about the root causes of sexual violence in conflict in a deeper way, including issues like the subordination of women, Maluwa added.

“They ought to name and shame more, and be open about what they see both within their communities and outside them,” she said.


In many war-torn regions, religious organisations are the only national institutions left after government services have departed.

For example, religious leaders are present throughout Central African Republic, where national and international military are almost absent and where (mainly Christian) self defence groups who sprang up initially to protect communities from Muslim Seleka rebels that briefly took power, are now attacking Muslim communities and each other.

“The only ones left on the ground protecting the general population are religious leaders,” Reverend Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Christian Evangelical Alliance in CAR said at the meeting.

He appealed to the international community to direct more funds to religious institutions in CAR. International aid agencies do not know the country and often do not leave the relative safety of the capital to reach those most in need, he added.

The reverend also criticised aid agencies and donors who give humanitarian funds to the government which, he said, “is not neutral on issues like sexual violence”.


Many religions have created a language and idea of shame (that can be damaging to women), said Shulamit Ambalu, a congregational rabbi in London and a lecturer in rabbinic literature.

People are taught that women’s bodies must be kept pure, and guarded and controlled.

“When (a woman) loses that purity through rape, she is shamed and she internalises that shame, and she blames herself,” Ambalu said.

“We need to say to people, ‘This is not a sexual act you have taken part in, but this is an attack on you as a human being made in the image of God, and shame does not enter into it’,” she said.

Ambalu added that she has been “astounded” at the speed at which situations can improve when clergy engage in them.

For example, she said referring to her experience in Britain, anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish women stay longer in abusive relationships, but this is something rabbis can address and change very quickly.

Julia Duncan-Cassell, minister of gender and development in the government of Liberia, said cultures need to change. “Most of our religious leaders (in West Africa) hide behind culture,” she said.

If a woman is violated, her religious leader will often tell her to let her attacker go, because he is the breadwinner of a family, Duncan-Cassell said.

“Whether you are Muslim, Jewish or Christian, let us modify our tradition and our culture in order to prevent violence against women and children,” she said.

She urged religious leaders to let women speak out. “Allow our women to be heard, allow our women to be seen,” she said.

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