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Theologian documents global scale of gender-based violence against women

Posted on: November 18, 2015 7:08 AM
Students of a midwifery school in El Fasher, North Darfur, participate in a march in December 2013 as part of a campaign against Gender Violence.
Photo Credit: UN Photo / Albert González Farran

[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] A new book by the Anglican theologian Dr Elaine Storkey, Scars Across Humanity, documents her extensive research on gender-based violence against women and the role that the church plays – for good or ill – in the struggle against the global problem. It is being launched today in the Speaker’s rooms at the House of Commons in London.

Dr Elaine Storkey, a former member of the General Synod, served as president for the Christian relief agency Tearfund for 16 years and in that role travelled the world to see for herself how rape and other forms of sexual violence is often used as a weapon in war and conflict.

“War embodies a gender paradox,” she writes. “It is traditionally fought by male military combatants, yet from every international or non-international war zone we hear reports of brutal violence against women. In our contemporary world, according to Amnesty International, 90 per cent of casualties in modern warfare are civilian and of these 75 per cent are women and children.

“The number of women involved in coercive violence is staggering. In the 100 days of genocide that ravaged the small African nation of Rwanda, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped. In Sierra Leone, between 1991 and 2000, about 64,000 internally displaced women endured sexual assault.

“In the Balkans tensions of the 1990s, thousands of women in Bosnia- Herzegovina and Kosovo experienced terrible violations involving mass rape: 20,000 to 50,000 women were violated in the Bosnian conflict over three years. During the Liberian civil war, from 1999 to 2003, about 49 per cent of women aged 15 to 70 experienced sexual violence from soldiers or armed militia. . .

“As recently as 2014, chronic instability and lawlessness in the Central African Republic opened up another wave of violence against women, and the brutal barbarity of Islamic State fighters continues the vicious process. Yet none of this awful scenario is new. Sexual violence was prevalent in Europe as far back as the 1914–18 War; it was in Asia during the Asia–Pacific Wars, and across more than one continent in the Second World War.

“One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, the National Catholic Reporter called for us to properly recognize gender-based violence in war for what it surely is: ‘Beheadings and bombings are seen as terrorist acts, but the systematic rape, abduction, and trafficking of women as a war tactic is still viewed only as a women’s or humanitarian issue. Until we recognize these acts of sexual violence as acts of terrorism and not simply as a humanitarian concern it will be difficult to combat these ongoing, catastrophic attacks on women.’”

Dr Storey’s research doesn’t focus exclusively on the use of rape as a weapon of war. Her research addresses a full spectrum of gender-based-violence including rape, trafficking and prostitution, intimate-partner violence, so-called honour killings, child marriage, child abuse, and female genital mutilation.

Bookcover _scars _against _humanityIt also addresses what Dr Storey refers to as violence before birth – selective abortion and infanticide based on the sex of the foetus. She points out that in India, where female infanticide has existed for centuries, female foeticide has now joined the fray.

“Dr Sabu George, a Delhi-based researcher, has spent the past quarter-century exposing what he calls ‘the worst kind of violence’ in Indian history – the elimination of millions of unborn girls,” she writes. “He regards it as nothing less than ‘genocide’, and describes the first few months in the womb as ‘the riskiest part of a woman’s life cycle in India’.

On child marriage, which she refers to as “child abuse by another name,” Dr Storkey says that “Every three seconds a girl under the age of 18 is married somewhere across the world – usually without her consent and sometimes to a much older man.

“The United Nations Population Fund suggests that, every day, 39,000 girls marry too young. It is predicted that more than 140 million child brides will have entered marriage in the decade up to 2020, 18.5 million of them under the age of 15; if nothing changes, the annual figure will grow from 14.2 million in 2010 to 15.1 million in 2030. As the General Secretary of the World Young Women’s Christian Association observes, the number of children married under age is now higher than the total population of Zimbabwe!

“Figures like these do indicate the massive numerical scale of the problem and the difficulties in eliminating it. But they do not unpack the human misery enfolded inside them. A moving exhibition mounted in 2014 by the United Nations in Geneva opened that up. Through very sober photographs and short, poignant narratives we came face to face with the wrecked hopes and tragic lives of survivors of child marriage.

“Ghulam had wanted to be a teacher, but was pulled out of school at 11 to marry a 40-year-old man; 14-year-old Afisha, in Ghana, was unable to be educated because of her father’s poverty, and instead was sold as a bride for cola nuts and 60 Cedis [about £10 GBP]; Asia was ill and bleeding from childbirth at 14, as she cared for her two-year-old child and new- born baby.”

Ian _Britton _Elaine _Storkey

Elaine Storkey pictured here as she addressed the 2008 Baptist Assembly in Blackpool, England. Photo: Ian Britton.

The accounts within Scars Across Humanity are blunt and harrowing. But they need to be. The issue of gender based violence is not a soft, fluffy, comfortable issue. The book brings this home without hiding the brutality involved.

Jackie Harris, the editor of Woman Alive magazine, described the book as “Powerful and absorbing” and says it “painstakingly documents the gross injustices facing women around the world.

“Some of the stories made headlines, many passed unnoticed and too many occurred much closer to home than we might realize,” she says. “This is not an easy book to read, but it is a necessary book. I hope the stories she shares and facts she brings before us will encourage us all to pray – and to join in the work of bringing healing and an end to gender-based violence.”

The founder of the Santa María Education Fund in Sante Fe, Paraguay, writer and theologian Margaret Hebblethwaite, said that “We all know that acts of violence against women are a problem, but never have we realized the scale of the problem is so huge.

“Where others would be cautious to speak out for fear of offending the sensibilities of other cultures, Elaine Storkey is clear and fearless, inspired by true compassion. Scrupulously researched and documented, illustrated with both statistics and personal stories, this is a book that changes perceptions and could play a substantive role in achieving change.”

And the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons in the UK, said that Dr Storkey “captures most vividly for her readers the way in which patriarchy, religious and cultural traditions, complications in the law, lack of education (not always) and isolation can combine and lead to women being abused, being permanently disfigured or their untimely death.

“This violation of the human rights of girls and women is indeed a ‘deep scar’ across humanity. The collusion that perpetuates the deepening of this scar will only cease when there is true respect given to girls and women in societies throughout our world.”

Scars Across Humanity is being launched at a private reception in the Speaker’s rooms in the House of Commons today. It will receive its public launch at the Christian Resources Exhibition in Eastbourne and the Church House Bookshop in Westminster next Wednesday, 25 November, to coincide with the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

It is published by SPCK.