(New York) March 17—A diverse group of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and inter-faith organizations that work to end sexual and gender-based violence have called on faith leaders to confront the problem in their communities and actively work to prevent abuse, aid survivors and change attitudes.

“Sexual and gender-based violence is prevalent in every community, shattering the lives of women and girls worldwide,” said the Anglican Communion’s Rev. Terrie Robinson, at the opening of a multi-faith panel discussion in New York—amid the UN’s 58th Commission on the Status of Women. The event was hosted by WeWillSpeakOut.US, IMA World Health and Islamic Relief USA.

Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Hunter, who heads Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence, said many well-meaning faith leaders have “colluded in the epidemic” through their silence and inaction and have even perpetuated violence and oppression through misinterpretation of scripture and traditions.

“The faith community has been silent in the past when it should have spoken, and at times has been part of the problem,” said Hunter. “It’s time for more faith leaders to become part of the solution—working to end gender-based violence in their communities and providing active and effective support for survivors.”

The panelists stressed that faith leaders have enormous untapped potential in responding to the crisis because they are a large and influential part of community life.

“When women of faith experience violence, they often turn to their faith leaders for healing and comfort,” said Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, an adviser with the Peaceful Families Project. She said it’s vital that faith leaders are willing, trained and ready to respond, noting that imams, for example, have a critical role in “interpreting abuse and helping communities define what constitutes healthy relationships and abusive ones.”

Rev. Dr. Sally MacNichol, co-Executive Director of CONNECT NYC, said religious leaders of all dominations have “moral influence” that if directed the right way, have the ability to transform the way communities think.

Louise Bashige applies this concept to IMA World Health programs that aid survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“In Congo, 95% of people follow a religion and listen to their faith leaders, which is why we educate them about sexual violence and train them to support and counsel survivors and mediate with families,” Bashige told the gathering. “Once faith leaders are transformed, when they confront violence and promote equality in the family and society, we start seeing changes in the way communities behave.”

All of the experts emphasized the importance of educating, training and building partnerships between faith leaders and social services—key components of their organizations’ efforts to engage faith communities in preventing abuse and improving services for women and girls.

“Education about gender-based violence is paramount and it should start in seminaries, before faith leaders are ordained,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, who spearheads advocacy and training initiatives for Jewish Women International.

All the panelists said they are encouraged by gradual progress and momentum on the issue. CONNECT has been holding intensive education sessions for clergy looking at violence through a faith lens. IMA World Health produces sermon guides to help faith leaders broach complex issues with their congregations. Jewish Women International works with a task force of rabbis to produce training materials for peers and leads an interfaith coalition that advocates on Capitol Hill. Safe Havens has initiated work to address elder abuse. Peaceful Families Project develops resources for imams using Islamic teachings to address gender-based violence.

“Faith leaders are powerful teachers and advocates,” said Rosenbloom. “When their wisdom is brought into the fold, they can change attitudes and save lives.”

The experts identified a number of additional areas that require attention, including more engagement with men and boys, improving partnerships between the faith community and secular social service providers, and ensuring that safety and healing programs are extended to all vulnerable groups, including older adults and LGBT people of faith.

“We’ve allowed the silence in the past, but now faith leaders must be accountable and tackle the problem head on,” Rev. MacNichol concluded. “They must be empowered to intervene, prevent and heal. It’s an incredible amount of work, but it’s starting to come together.”

For more information and interview requests, contact:
Chris Glass (DC) IMA World Health / WeWillSpeakOut.US: 443-547-0278 / chrisglass@imaworldhealth.org

Melissa Winkler (NYC) IMA World Health / WeWillSpeakOut.US: 646-734-0305 / melissajwinkler@gmail.com

Michelle Strucke (DC) Islamic Relief USA: 703-209-3262 / mstrucke@irusa.org

About WeWillSpeakOut.US
WeWillSpeakOut.US is a movement of diverse faith groups from across the US that joins together with other leaders, organizations and congregations in action and advocacy to end the silence around sexual and gender based violence. Its mission is to work at local, national and global levels to raise awareness, care for victims, encourage law enforcement, influence policy and change the culture of tolerance and inaction. WeWillSpeakOut.US was launched by IMA World Health in 2013. It is an outgrowth of the WeWillSpeakOut (Global) coalition, which was established in 2011 in the United Kingdom. For more information and ways to get involved, visit www.WEWILLSPEAKOUT.US

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Islamic Relief USA, based in Alexandria, Va., is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) humanitarian organization. Its mission is to alleviate suffering, hunger, illiteracy and disease regardless of color, race, gender or creed, and to provide aid in a compassionate and dignified manner. Islamic Relief USA aims to provide rapid relief in the event of human and natural disasters and to establish sustainable local development projects, allowing communities to better help themselves. Its programs benefit millions of people each year around the world, including in the United States.

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