The Gender-Based Violence Task Force, of the Interagency Gender Working Group (IGWG), co-chaired by PRB and FHI360, recently brought together individuals from a range of different organizations for a unique event covering the role of faith-based organizations in addressing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). What is SGBV? Using the definition from the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency, SGBV refers to any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships. This event was the first hosted by the IGWG GBV Task Force to cover the intersection of SGBV and religion. I came into the meeting eager to learn about a topic that was relatively new to me. I am not a specialist in SGBV and have never worked with a faith-based organization. However, my international experience has taught me how influential religious leaders can be in framing discussions around societal values and cultural norms. During the two years I spent in Senegal with the nongovernmental organization, Tostan, I saw first-hand how instrumental it was to partner with local religious leaders and work with them on issues such as child protection and the abandonment of harmful practices, including child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting. If the religious leaders were included in the conversation and engaged in these programs from the beginning, they were much more likely to be supportive of these efforts and promote them to communities they served.
In listening to the four panelists invited to speak at the event, I realized that this lesson was equally applicable in the context of SGBV. The panelists came from different backgrounds and represented both faith-based and nonfaith-based organizations—Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities, Tearfund, IMA World Health, and Overseas Consulting, Ltd.—but all spoke about the importance of religion in addressing SGBV. The speakers remarked that while religion can be used to directly and indirectly perpetrate SGBV, opportunities for engagement exist. They spoke about the importance of engaging faith leaders in the effort to transform masculinities, prevent SGBV, and provide a safe space for survivors of SGBV. Engaging the faith community remains critical given the role of religious leaders in setting gender norms. Since SGBV is often associated with stigma, it is vital that survivors feel supported by their religious communities. One point that stuck with me was that 84 percent of people across the globe identify as religious. It is only natural therefore, for SGBV survivors to turn to religion in their recovery.
While SGBV can and does occur anywhere, the panelists provided a more detailed assessment of the situation in certain settings, particularly in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After years of armed conflict and a humanitarian crisis, the prevalence of SGBV in eastern DRC is difficult to comprehend. Over 30 percent of women and men and over 60 percent of children have experienced some form of SGBV. Recent research from eastern DRC highlighted that intimate partner violence has been normalized and accepted by both women and men. The research also noted the link between substance abuse and SGBV. I was struck by the finding that substance abuse can both precipitate and be a consequence of violence. Given the many dimensions of the sources and impact of SGBV in the region, eastern DRC provides a prime example of a setting in which religious leaders have a critical role to play in addressing SGBV.
Some of the global key lessons that I took away from the discussion around faith-based organizations and SGBV included:
- SGBV programs must partner with religious leaders and faith-based organizations from the beginning, not merely use them as tools.
- Religious leaders themselves can change their own attitudes and behaviors.
- Faith-based organizations should be leveraged to expand SGBV services and provide a safe space for survivors.
- Income-generating activities are important to survivors to reduce stigma.
- Community mobilization and interpersonal communication should play key roles in any intervention to address SGBV.
- To the extent they are available, support services are known and used by survivors.
While illustrating the opportunities that exist to partner with faith-based organizations to address SGBV, the panelists also highlighted the challenges that exist to both implementing programs that serve survivors and conducting research to better understand the causes and consequences of SGBV within a given context. These challenges include:
- Scaling up activities and interventions to reach more people.
- Engaging faith leaders who are wary of being used as a means to an end.
- Overcoming survey fatigue in regions like eastern DRC.
- Addressing stigma faced by survivors when coming forward.
The event concluded with an animated question and answer session. The participants and panelists spoke about the need for those implementing programs in the field to speak the same language around faith as the program beneficiaries. The panelists recognized that no single curriculum can be used to engage religious leaders and faith-based organizations around SGBV. The curriculum and program design need to be tailored to the local context. At the end of the event, the participants and panelists left with added energy and a much greater understanding of the role that faith-based organizations can play in addressing SGBV. By continuing to engage religious leaders in the discussion about how to confront SGBV and support survivors, program implementers, donors, and policymakers can learn lessons about how to have the greatest impact and support survivors to the greatest extent possible.