The Anglican Communion’s Director for Women in Church & Society, the Revd Canon Terrie Robinson, comments on the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.
“Still I rise” is the title of one of the most well-known poems by Maya Angelou, the African-American poet and civil rights activist. It’s a strident and hopeful poem about resilience and determination in the face of oppression. That title, “Still I rise”, has been borrowed for a travelling exhibition of portraits of women, currently at Lambeth Palace. The portraits have been painted by a remarkable artist called Hannah Rose Thomas.
Hannah has undertaken interactive art projects with traumatised women in a number of countries, and the exhibition “Still I rise” is a collection of captivating paintings of Nigerian women who have survived abductions and sexual violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, Rohingya women now in Bangladesh having fled the killings, sexual violence and destruction of their homes in Myanmar, and Yezidi women who survived enslavement by Daesh in Iraq.
The portraits are incredibly beautiful but the stories of each of the women are heartbreaking. One of the tragedies of sexual violence is the stigma attached to victims and survivors. This global reality comes across clearly in the stories of “Still I rise”.
Families and communities see the victims as damaged goods. The word “defilement” or words like it in other languages are often used in place of “rape”; but “defilement” suggests the ruining or tarnishing of the victim. The victim is seen as less than respectable. This is so wrong.
A victim of sexual violence is still a precious human being with God-given worth and dignity, who should always be afforded safe space, an opportunity to heal, and be embraced and supported in their family, their community and their place of worship.
The Greek word metanoia, used many times in the New Testament, is usually translated in the English language as “repentance”. Metanoia is also translated as a change of heart, or a change of mind, or even a turning to the light. It means all those things and this is what Paul captures in Romans 12.2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
When we reflect biblically and theologically on issues such as the use of power, empowerment as the work of love; “agency” – the ability to act for oneself; just relationship between women and men, girls and boys, then we do need to look at metanoia – that arrival at repentance and turning away from old ways and harmful attitudes, turning to the light and to God – to understand how it informs Jesus-shaped life.
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in a few days’ time on 25 November raises up the whole issue of gender-based violence in all its forms and encourages all communities – including church communities – to take stock, to speak up, and to take action.
In fact 25 November marks the beginning of a growing international movement called the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence.
The 16 Days of Activism give a focus for civil society, governments, churches and all people of faith to take seriously the transformative work needed to eliminate violence and support victims and survivors. They give us a space where we can reflect on the metanoia we are all called to as we put on Christ and turn away from harmful attitudes and behaviours that get in the way of the light.
I leave the last words with Maya Angelou who was, herself, a survivor of sexual violence:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.